Archive for February, 2012

Sources of Authority

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

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Mark 1: 9-15
Genesis 9: 8-17

Preface

In the autumn each year I have the true pleasure to teach a course on the Gospel of John.  For five years my teaching assistant, a priest and poet, has helped our students to prepare their research papers.  She meets early in the term with each of the twelve or so disciples.  She uses my school of theology office to do so, over a fortnight or so.  We share a key that for those weeks I leave in the Marsh Chapel office, so that the one needing the key, now she now I, may take and use it.  The system works well, or, well, works when it works.  That is, do you know how many times I traipse to my third floor school office, and do what I normally do, fish for the key ring, and pull out the—wait a minute, oh no, oh yes, the key is in the other building.  Over to Marsh I go.  The body and its habits, in collusion with the unconscious and its rhythms, takes me where I habitually go, to do what I ritually do.  Do you know how many times it has taken to become aware of what I need to do to enter the study in the school?  Too many.   We are creatures of habit, guided along by our suppositions and assumptions.  Lent arrives to wake us up, to make us aware.  Lent arrives to challenge us to move from sensation to reflection, from activity to awareness.

Jesus meets us today in the long experience of the wilderness.  The wilderness where reflection quickens.  The wilderness where discipline begins.  The wilderness where the great questions—freedom, immorality, God, all—may touch us.  The wilderness where there is quiet, space, silence.  I invite you this Lent to journey with me, one beggar among others, to travel from sensation to reflection.

We begin this morning, taking stock of our sources (or media?) of authority, upon which we shall base our coming Lenten teaching.  In the Gospel, Jesus hears Scripture, Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased.  That is Psalm 2: 7.  You are meant to recognize the divine voice echoed here from Holy Scripture.  In the Gospel, Jesus honors tradition—baptized by John in the Jordan.  In the Gospel, Jesus is driven by the spirit, the breath of God, the spirit of truth, reason and reasoned.  In the Gospel, Jesus struggles, and suffers, he experiences depth and height, as do we:  tempted, endangered, in need of angelic support.  These are the sources of authority on which the gospel is proclaimed—scripture, tradition, reason, experience.

Your move today from sensation to reflection involves a recognition of sources for authority.

That is, your love of Christ shapes your love of Scripture and tradition and reason and experience.  You are lovers and knowers too.  We are ever in peril of loving what we should use and using what we should love, to paraphrase Augustine.  In particular we sometimes come perilously close to the kind of idolatry that uses what we love.  We are tempted, for our love Christ, to force a kind of certainty upon what we love, to use what is meant to give confidence as a force and form of certainty.  It is tempting to substitute the freedom and grace of confidence for the security and protection of certainty.  But faith is about confidence not certainty.  If we had certainty we would not need faith.

1. Scripture and Errancy

Your love for Christ shapes your love of Scripture.  You love the Bible.  You love its psalmic depths.  #130 comes to mind. You love its stories and their strange names.  Obededom comes to mind.  You love proverbial wisdom.  One sharpens another comes to mind. You love its freedom, its account of the career of freedom.  The exodus comes to mind. You love its memory of Jesus.  His holding children comes to mind. You love its honesty about religious life.  Galatians comes to mind.  You love its strangeness.  John comes to mind.  You love the Bible like Rudolph Bultmann loved it, enough to know it through and through.

You rely on the Holy Scripture to learn to speak of faith, and as a medium of truth for the practice of faith. Today in worship, we share this reliance and this love.  The fascinating multiplicity of hearings, here, and the interplay of congregations present, absent, near, far, known, unknown, religious and unreligious, have a common ground in regard for the Scripture. A preacher descending into her automobile in Boston, after an earlier service, listens to this service to hear the interpretation of the gospel.  A homebound woman in Newton listens for the musical offerings and for the reading of scripture.  On the other side of the globe, way down in Sydney, Australia, a student listens in, come Sunday, out of a love of Christ that embraces a love of Scripture.  Here in the Chapel nave, on the Lord’s Day, scholars and teachers and students have in common, by their love for Christ, a love for the Scripture, too.  In this way, we may all affirm Mr. Wesley’s motto:  homo unius libri, to be a person of one book.

We want to be aware, though, to move from mere sensation, the stumbling around and rattling of mistaken keys, to reflection, to an awareness, a sturdy, honest awareness of truth.

So we acknowledge that the Bible is errant.  It is theologically tempting for us to go on preaching as if the last 250 years of study just did not happen.  They did.  That does not mean that we should deconstruct the Bible to avoid allowing the Bible to deconstruct us, or that we should study the Bible in order to avoid allowing the Bible to study us.  In fact, after demythologizing the Bible we may need to remythologize the Bible too.  It is the confidence born of obedience, not some certainty born of fear that will open the Bible to us.  We need not fear truth, however it may be known.  So Luke may not have had all his geographical details straight.  John includes the woman caught in adultery, but not in its earliest manuscripts.  Actually she, poor woman, is found at the end of Luke in some texts.  Paul did not write the document from the earlier third century, 3 Corinthians. The references to slavery in the New Testament are as errant and time bound as are the references to women not speaking in church.  The references to women not speaking in church are as errant and time bound as are the references to homosexuality.  The references to homosexuality are as errant and time bound as are the multiple lists of the twelve disciples.  The various twelve listings are as errant and time bound as the variations between John and the other Gospels.

The Marsh pulpit, and others like it, are not within traditions which affirm the Scripture as the sole source of religious authority.  We love the Scripture as the primary but not sole source of authority in faith. We do not live within a Sola Scriptura tradition.  The Bible is primary, foundational, fundamental, basic, prototypical—but not exclusively authoritative.  Do you hear that?  It begs to be heard.  Today’s passage from Mark 1 is an idealized memory of something that may or may not have happened in the way accounted, somewhere along the Jordan river.  It looks back forty years.  What do you remember from January of 1972?  Nor was it written for that kind of certainty.  It is formed in the faith of the church to form the faith of the church.

If I were teaching a Sunday School class this winter I would buy the class copies of Throckmorton’s Gospel parallels and read it with them.

We grasp for certainty, but confidence grasps us.

2.Tradition and Equality

You love the tradition of the church as well.  Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed…John Wesley loved the church’s tradition too, enough to study it and to know it, and to seek its truth.  The central ecclesiastical tradition of his time, the tradition of apostolic succession, he termed a ‘fable’.  Likewise, we lovers of the church tradition will not be able to grasp for certainty in it, if that grasping dehumanizes others.  The Sabbath was made for the human being, not the other way around, in our tradition.

An ecumenical summary of this trend toward equality was remembered for us this week: The needs of the poor have priority over the wants of the rich.  The freedom of the dominated has priority over the liberty of the powerful. The participation of the marginalized has priority over the structures of exclusion.

Boston University has long and strong history of expanding the circle of equality to include the poor, laborers, immigrants, former slaves, women, and, in our time, with work still to be done, gay people, those otherwise abled, the interreligious community, and the citizenship of the globe.

It is theologically tempting to shore up by keeping out.  But it has no future.  Equality will triumph over exclusion.  It is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave…

If I were convening a Lenten study in suburban Washington DC I would have the group read S Turkel, Alone Together, for some perspective on the way traditions change.

3. Reason and Evolution

You love the mind, the reason.  You love the prospect of learning.  You love the life of the mind.  You love the Lord with heart and soul and mind.  A mind is a terrible thing to waste. You love the reason in the same that Charles Darwin, a good Anglican, loved the reason.  You love its capacity to see things differently.

Of course reason unfettered can produce hatred and holocaust.  Learning for its own sake needs virtue and piety.  More than anything else, learning to last must finally be rooted in loving.  Our voice here at Marsh Chapel is meant to call the University community, Sunday by Sunday, like a minaret or shofar or village steeple, from sensation to reflection.  Our voice here is meant reasonably to recall for young people that people are to be loved not used.

We are meant to use our minds to explore the world, our selves within it, and the promise of the God who created it.  We shall need to reason together.The universe is 14 billion years old.  The earth is 4.5 billion years old. 500 million years ago multi-celled organisms appeared in the Cambrian explosion.  400 million years ago plants sprouted.  370 million years ago land animals emerged.  230 million years ago dinosaurs appeared (and disappeared 65 million years ago).  200,000 years ago hominids arose.  Every human being carries 60 new mutations out of 6 billion cells.  Yes, evolution through natural selection by random mutation is a reasonable hypothesis, says F Collins, father of the human genome project, and, strikingly, a person of faith.

If I were the chaplain of a small private school in New England I might have my fellowship group read this winter C. Smith, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. He can teach us to reason together.

It is tempting to disjoin learning and vital piety, but it is not loving to disjoin learning and vital piety.  They go together.  The God of Creation is the very God of Redemption.  Their disjunction may help us cling for a while to a kind of faux certainty.  But their conjunction is the confidence born of obedience.  Falsehood has no defense and truth needs none.

4.Experience and Existence

You love experience.  The gift of experience in faith is the heart of your love of Christ.  You love Christ. Like Howard Thurman loved the mystical ranges of experience, you do too.  Isaiah, in looking forward, can sing of the joy of harvest.  We know joy.  Joy seizes us.  Joy grasps us when we are busy grasping at other things.  You love what we are given morning and evening.

You love experience more than enough to examine your experience, to think about and think through what you have seen and done.

Give yourself some room to move this Lent from sensation to reflection.

We need to examine our experience, and particularly this Lent, our experience with technology.  Ellul: ‘Technology has two consequences which strike me as the most profound in our time.  I call them the suppression of the subject and the suppression of meaning…The suppression of the subject is transforming traditional human relations, which require the voice, which require seeing, or which require a physical relationship between one human being and the next.  The  result is the distant relationship…the suppression of meaning:  the ends of existence gradually seem to be effaced by the predominance of means…the meaning of existence of ‘why I  am alive’ is suppressed as technology so vastly develops its power…

We want to move from techo sensation to techno reflection.  How?

  1. On Monday, aver: wherever you are, be there.
  2. On Tuesday: before you check your face book, face your checkbook.
  3. On Wednesday, decide: orders need borders:  respond to voice in one day, email etc in three days, writing in one week.
  4. On Thursday, choose: make a Lenten exception: answer your non emergency email all on Wednesday each week.
  5. On Friday, raise the bar: respond to facebook and twitter with email, to email with voice, to voice with letter, to letter with visit.
  6. On Saturday, remember:  email is international, irretrievable, immutable, eternal, so whatever you write make sure are happy to have it appear on the front page of the Boston Globe or chiseled on your tombstone.
  7. Come Sunday, of course:  attend or listen to Marsh Chapel.

If I were reading with a group this month I might read Ellul’s Presence of the Kingdom.

There are indeed theological temptations in the unbalanced love of Scripture, tradition, reason or experience.  As we come soon to Lent let us face them down.  Let us face them down together.  Let us do so by lifting our voices to admit errancy, affirm equality, explore evolution, and admire existence.  The measure of preaching today in the tradition of a responsible Christian liberalism is found in our willingness to reflect on our sources of authority, our love of STRE, and to reflect therein on errancy, equality, evolution and existence.

So we shall join the long parade of those who for generations have faithfully tried to rise above sensation and live in a mode of reflection.  Noah gives us a reminder of the promise of divine care.  You well remember this first biblical covenant, that of Noah, set and sealed in the rainbow.  The covenant with Noah brings promise.  The covenants with Abraham, Moses, David and Jeremiah do the same.  They make way in us for the new covenant, the new testament, the fulfilling of time promised in today’s Gospel.  I set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be sign of covenant between me and the earth.

Wednesday I walked west on Commonwealth Avenue.  A friend came alongside and we enjoyed a several block conversation.  A sermon is like the kind of stepping alongside for conversation.  Then he turned at a corner to head for his office, and we parted and departed.  But two blocks later, he came alongside me again, saying, You know, I have turned at that corner so often to go to my office, that I completely forgot that my office is no longer where it was.  It is up ahead here on the left.  My habits, body and unconscious took me one way, but I should have been going with you. Yes.  We benefit, come Lent, from the journey away from sensation and out toward reflection—kindled in authoritative intervention by Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.  Yes, your divergence reminds me of the experience I had this autumn with my school office key, shared with my teaching assistant, a series of moments when sensation would have benefitted from a little reflection…

We are on a Lenten journey, from sensation to reflection.

We are on a Lenten journey, from sensation to reflection.

We are on a Lenten journey, from sensation to reflection.

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

Transfixed with Bach

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

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Mark 9: 2-9

Rev. Quigley: This morning, we join the apostles; as they ascend the mountain, we climb the steps of Marsh Chapel’s gothic nave. We join Peter, James, and John; as they take some time apart with Jesus, we turn up the dial in our car radio, or pour a second cup of coffee in the quiet of our kitchen. We follow their gaze up the mountainside as they wonder what they will see; our eyes, or our mind’s eyes, are drawn up and up through the sanctuary, from sacred places to sacred faces, and finally to the great openness of the vaulted ceiling above. This is Transfiguration Sunday.

There is an anticipation, an excitement, a buzzing about a vibrant church on a Sunday morning: chatter from small study groups, the rustling of robes as choristers dress, the caffeine-rich scent of coffee brewing, the rhythmic sounds of worship leaders saying a brief prayer before service begins. You will find all this and more at 735 Commonwealth Avenue any week, but a few Sundays of the year this atmosphere has even more heightened energy, on holy days such as Christmas and Easter, of course, but also for the few Sundays annually in which the rich sounds of a Bach cantata anchor our service of worship and praise.

Elisha, too, is full of energy, and anxiety this morning. Along his last walk with his mentor, standing as signposts of the spectacle to come, companies of prophets like a Greek chorus foretell of a vision of an ascension. Like Elisha, we have our own company of prophets with us today, who with their voices and instruments will summon us to keep watch, and to perk up our ears, to hear the message that Bach can bring to us today.

1 Corinthians 12 says that each of us is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good; some are given the gift of tongues, and others the gift of interpretation of tongues. Now, music is its own language, so as is our custom, we have our Director of Music,

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, with us this morning to interpret for us what we are about to hear.

Dr. Jarrett, what signposts will we hear this morning?

Dr. Jarrett: Thank you, Rev. Quigley. Today’s cantata is one of Bach’s great musical triumphs, first performed in October of 1725 for Reformation Sunday. The opening movement depicts the triumph of the new way – Luther’s way, that is – in a most exuberant, muscular – even militant – display of counterpoint and brilliance. The opening orchestral material, extending for an astonishing 45 measures before the chorus entrance, introduces all the thematic material of the movement, including a broad march and a strictly treated three-voice fugue. The cantata features some of the most difficult horn parts in Bach’s entire output, depicting the glory of the battle won. Perhaps the most surprising element of the opening movement is the unrelenting presence of the timpani in a most extraordinary part. The timpani’s rambunctious pounding calls to mind Luther’s bold and precocious nailing of the 95 Theses on the Wittenburg church door.

The second movement, sung today by Gerrod Pagenkopf, proves Bach’s ability to set a similar text in a completely different fashion. The meter of the music with the oboe obbligato present us with a relaxed, elegant pastoral image of God as protector. For the third movement, Bach seems to have recognized that we haven’t yet heard one of Luther’s great hymns. But he delivers a tour de force like no other. The horns and timpani return with their triumphant music from the first movement as the choir and orchestra sing that most famous hymn, ‘Not thank we all our God.’

After the chorale, the cantata takes the anticipated introspective turn for how we continue to fight the battle each day in our contemporary lives. Like the disciples with Jesus on the mountain top, the baritone praises God for the revelation of truth through Word and Incarnation. The recitative concludes with a prayer for hope of salvation from those who do not yet know God. The duet introduces the only elements of doubt in the entire cantata. Here the soprano and bass lines, sung by Kira Winter and Thomas Middleton, cling to each other amid the threat of the darting unison violin line. Only once do they lose each other as the text depicts the harsh raging of the enemy. The cantata ends with a standard four-part chorale setting, but with the two horns and timpani crowning the movement.

Though a Reformation cantata, we find resonance with today’s liturgy and texts. We hear the steadfastness of the apostles at Jesus’ side on the mount in the staunchness and assurance of the opening movement. The presence of the fugal material reminds us of the law of Moses and Elijah. And the presence of the fugue with the broader homophonic music reveals the fulfillment of the prophesy and Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah. We detect Elisha side by side with Elijah in the soprano and bass duet. As we recall the Reformation story, and revisit in the mind’s eye a burgeoning movement toward religious freedoms, we sing again ‘Now thank we all our God.’ Our convictions are transformed, transfigured, and renewed in the grace and redemption of God’s love and might.

Rev. Quigley: Transfiguration is not quite like the class taught at Hogwarts by Professor McGonagall; it is not about turning a cat into a teacup with the flick of a wand. Transfiguration in our gospel reveals the divine within the human, the extraordinary within the ordinary. As in our cantata, we see the different modes of Christ, both the triumphant and the pastoral. This is not unlike our gospel today. The author of Mark, more so than his fellow gospel-writers, portrays for us a down and dirty Jesus. This Jesus has a tendency to spit when healing, he has a strange affinity for dirt, he touches lepers, he curses out fig trees, and he falls asleep in the back of boats. But today, Mark reminds us that Jesus is also the Christ, by foretelling the glory and power of the resurrection.

I think that many of our most powerful spiritual experiences are little transfigurations. We hear a familiar, beloved hymn tune sung in a full-chorused and orchestrated cantata. It reminds us of singing in our home churches, and the new, bright assurance of faith washes over us more powerfully than it first did decades ago. After three, fifteen, fifty years of marriage, we look across the table at our spouse, and the light catches them just right. They are not as beautiful as the wedding day, they are more beautiful, because we have caught a tiny glimpse of the divine spark of our Creator in them. A single conversation at work or at school, and we finally see that we can make an impact; all the callouses (on our hands or on our minds) can change people’s lives, and perhaps for the first time, we discover the intersection of our passion and the world’s need in our sense of vocation.

So this morning, we sit transfixed, receiving Bach’s inspired gift even as he sits beside us, contemplating the same divine majesty. We will have to come down the mountain soon enough, and then we will have to go back into the rhythms of our lives. But something will be different, and even though we know words will fail us, we know something will have to change. Something will have to be shared with others. Mark knows this; Mark’s gospel is known for what biblical scholars call the “messianic secret.” Jesus does something spectacular, and then he demands it be kept secret until after the resurrection. The purpose of the messianic secret in the gospel is much debated, but I find a little Markan humor in it, that the news about Jesus is too good not to share, and time and again people cannot keep the secret.

The irony of life’s transfigurative moments is that no words will properly describe them, but they are so powerful they demand to be shared with others. So this morning, we sit, with the disciples, and with Elisha, and with Bach, unsure of what we will experience and even less sure what we will do afterward. But we sit, transfixed, and know that we are about to experience something of the divine, of the extraordinary revealed within the ordinariness of our lives.

Amen.

~The Rev. Jen Quigley, Chapel Associate
Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

The Better Angels of our Nature

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

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Mark 1: 40-45

What are the better angels of our nature? One is conscience, and another is compassion. ‘Conceived in liberty’—that is conscience. ‘Dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal’—that is compassion. Are you ready to brush these two angel wings? They have been brought to us with a price.

This week, suddenly, we realize again how much we owe to those who won our freedom, both temporal and spiritual, both civic and religious. Discussion of liberty and equality arises, February 2012! Yet so much of it proceeds with almost no sense of memory, and thereby little to no depth. Perhaps just for a moment this morning we might reflect on freedom. Our Gospel declares, ‘He went out and began to talk freely’. We are people who talk freely about freedom, temporal and spiritual. Maybe today, February 12, we might remember some of the great words about conscience and compassion, liberty and equality, which we inherit. For in fact our discourse about freedom has long involved the interplay of temporal conscience and spiritual compassion, of civic liberty and religious freedom. We are heirs both of temporal and of spiritual freedom. Abraham Lincoln from his western window perch in this nave can help to remind us.

A. Temporal Freedom Means…

Freedom from the Tyranny of Kings

We think of Washington’s army, shivering along the Hudson River, in the first cold winter of Independence, 1776. Thomas Paine:

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; ‘tis dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as Freedom should not be highly rated.”

Freedom from the Bondage of Slavery

So, Lincoln. We think first of Abraham Lincoln in 1861, hopeful as he began his presidency. We think second of Lincoln in 1865, exhausted and soon to die, riddled with worry, conflict, risk, chance, decision and death for four years. Out of affliction came a great hope. Abraham Lincoln, his hopeful first inaugural and his chastened second:

First, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Second, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work that we are in…to do all that may achieve a just and a lasting peace for us and for all the nations.”

Freedom from the Threat of Dictatorship

We think of Franklin Roosevelt, bound to his wheelchair, yet out of that bondage finding the rhetoric and courage to lead his people from fear to faith. Nothing to fear but fear itself. A day that will live in infamy. A world founded on four freedoms. Arsenal of democracy…FDR:

In 1941: “We, too, born to freedom, and believing in freedom, are willing to fight to maintain freedom. We, and all others who believe as deeply as we do, would rather die on our feet than live on our knees…

In 1945: “We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations, far away. We have learned that we must live as men, and not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger. We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community”

Freedom from the Despotism of Ideology

We think of John Kennedy, wearing the anxiety of the cold war, and meeting that cold with warm words, warmly worded. A profile in courage. JFK, 1961:

“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world…Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

Freedom from tyranny, slavery, dictatorship, ideology: for temporal freedom we are thankful.

B. Spiritual Freedom Means…

But I must ask you: if the value of our temporal freedom is now so clearly and even starkly visible, how much more, then, is the higher value of our spiritual freedom even more clearly and more starkly visible? If the ringing rhetoric of our national heritage can so move us, today, how much more are we transformed by the freedom we have received in Jesus Christ? For it is this freedom, wrought by Almighty God, upon which we depend for our salvation, for eternal life, for forgiveness, for heaven, and for heavenly peace on earth. This is God’s own work, enacted in the life, death and destiny of Christ, whom we both follow and adore. As God’s act for us, for us men and women, and for our salvation, a divine and new RE birth of freedom it is not susceptible, finally, to assault of any kind. It is the delight and desire of God to cleanse.

So today: here is the Healing of a Leper. Jesus, moved with pity, stretched, touched, said: I will.  Be clean.  One writes, “Our passage then foreshadows both Jesus’ eschatological freedom… (Marcus, loc cit, 211)

Freedom from the Tyranny of Religion

We think of Paul of Tarsus, a.d. 50,who was seized by this same freedom, and who could fly free from the fetters of his inherited religion. Religion, untamed, can do so much harm. The life, death and destiny of Jesus set Paul free, to love and to serve. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh, I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself up for me.”

Freedom from the Bondage of the Flesh

We think of Augustine of Hippo, a.d. 400, who wrestled, grappled with the desires of the flesh for much of his life. A man of great learning, he nonetheless found himself unable to put away temptations that he was powerless to resist. Then, once in a garden, he heard a voice, like of a child, saying, “take and read”. He picked up a copy of the letters of Paul that he had been reading, and he saw these words: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” From that moment he found peace of mind.

Freedom from the Threat of Judgment

We think of John Wesley, who though he had as much or more formal religion than any of his contemporaries, was made to wait until middle age before he exchanged the form of religion for its power. Wesley on Aldersgate Street: “About a quarter to nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”(5/24/1738) Take this sacrament to your comfort, as an altar call to freedom from the threat of judgment.

Freedom from the Despotism of Defeat

We think of one pastor, a.d. 1939, bringing a proposal for a new church to his doubtful Board of Trustees, and doing so amid depression and war. He dedicated his idea to the glory of God and the service of women and men. On the front page, as I have learned thanks to a friend’s research, he placed this quotation, an inscription he had found on a country church in England: “In the year 1643, when all things sacred were either demolished or profaned, this Church was built by one whose singular praise is to have done the best things in the worst times and to have hoped them in the most calamitous.” If you preach in a post modern, post Judea Christian era, take heart here. If you preach in a minimally religious region, take heart here. If you preach where faithfulness somehow has become disconnected from Sunday worship, take heart here. If you preach where the shallow in worship has overcome the high and true and deep, take heart here: your singular praise is to have done the best of things in the worst of times and to have hoped them in the most calamitous.

Freedom from the Fear of the Future

We think of Ernest Freemont Tittle, Evanston Illinois, a.d. 1960, the month of his own death, who more than most in his generation fifty years ago, saw the contours of the future. Tittle: We of this generation are confronted with the revelation of divine purpose given in a human interrelatedness and interdependence that justifies the term “one world”. We find ourselves in a situation where no one nation can prosper unless all prosper, no one people can dwell secure unless security is assured to all. This situation was brought about through human agents, through the activities of scientists, inventors, traders, imperialists; but it is not a result of human planning. Not even the most ardent imperialist will claim that empire was devised as a means of drawing the world together, nor will anyone claim that science or invention or international trade was carried on with a view to bringing about the interdependence of nations and peoples. The situation in which we now find ourselves, so far from being a result that we human creatures purposed and planned, has to a large extent been brought about despite our purposes, which for the most part were selfish and shortsighted enough. It has come to pass through the providence of God, who, through science and technology, through improved means of transportation and communication, through the extension of trade and credit, has brought it to pass that we have got to act with due consideration for the rest of mankind if we ourselves are to prosper and dwell secure. Something beyond us, a superhuman purpose and power, is working in history, bringing about the increasing interdependence of men and nations, so that our sheer survival becomes ever more contingent upon the establishment of justice and fair play in all our relations to one another.”

Freedom from religion, flesh, judgment, defeat, fear: for spiritual freedom we are deeply thankful.

Lincoln strangely knew them both.

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12. In his honor we close with a recitation of his most famous statement, the Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

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

Prevenient Grace

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

Click here to hear the full service.
Click here to hear the sermon only.
Mark 1: 29-39

Preface

The phrase, ‘prevenient grace’, a favorite of John Wesley’s, identifies God’s grace as active prior to our awareness, prior to our acceptance, prior to our engagement, prior to our knowledge, prior to our own conscious response.  This grace comes to us, comes toward us.

We think of ourselves as marching forward, into the future.  And well we might, and well we should.  But grace is the future coming toward us, marching into us, toward us.  It is incursive, it is incarnate.  It is invasive.  It is coming toward us.

The cosmic apocalyptic theological perspective which shapes our Gospel of Mark is not our own.  Beelzebub—not a family name.  Children of light and of darkness—not the way we define the world.  The end time, the last days, the day of the Lord—not our primary religious or personal lexicon.  Satan—not a ready or readily understood figure.  The cosmic apocalyptic theological perspective which shapes St. Mark does not shape us.

But one part of it does, or should.  Time is coming toward us.  The future is settling in on us.  It is not we who march forward into time so much as it is time marching toward, into, through and past us.  There it goes…

Healing on the Sabbath, for an individual, out among a whole city, and in the pastures of prayer.  Coming right at us, like a..

What similes, metaphors, analogies come to mind today, about the future descending upon us?  Like a…

Like a linebacker vaulting into the pocket, or a punt descending out of the sky, or a kickoff falling earthward, or a return team moving to tackle, or an hour of contest approaching. ()

The future is coming toward us.  That part of cosmic apocalyptic we can readily receive, if we will pivot just a bit.

Prevenient carries a sense of coming before, of preparing, of guiding.  Prevenient grace finds us when we are not expecting to be found, or to find.   Prevenient grace enters the home, through the front door.  This grace attends to the needs of the identified patient in the family.  Then prevenient grace flings open the door to the home and gathers the whole community, to heal the sick and cast out demons.  An early grace reaches us and reminds us that who we are is connected to where we are.

And what comes toward us?  Grace, in seven servings: baptism, a name in a church; confirmation, a faith in a tradition; eucharist, a morsel in a community; ordination, a calling in a context; marriage, a partnership in a pattern; forgiveness, a pardon in a gathering; unction, an eternal hope in an historical experience.  What comes toward us?  Prevenient grace.

Prevenient Grace:  Personal

Said John Calvin:  Now the evangelists seem to have narrated this miracle with some emphasis, not for being in itself more distinguished than the others, or more deserving to be remembered, but because in it Christ gave a homely and closer example of his grace to his disciples…The healing of one woman gave him the opportunity for many miracles (Commentary, loc.cit.)

Our gospel ends in prayer.  But the two healings of the narrative buttress each other.  The first, the healing of Peter’s mother, comes to an individual.  The second, attested in odd combinations of words—all, many, all, many, the whole—distributes the healing to the community.  Jesus is moving toward his hearers, and toward us, now to the individual, now to the culture at large.  His preparation is showing the way to personal and social holiness.  They go together.  Holiness of heart depends on holiness of life.  Where we are affects who we are.  As Ortega memorably put it, “Yo soy you y mis circunstancias”—I am myself and my circumstances.

There is a spirit of health loose in the universe, a spirit of healing, touching persons and pervading communities.  We do well to attend to the eruptions of health, in our place and time.

Peter was married.  I’m just sayin… You acquire a mother in law in a time honored fashion.  Did you notice that Simon has a mother in law?  That must mean… Simon is no longer out on the beach with Andrew, free and easy, as he was just two Sundays ago.  He has a home, he has a family, he has an extended family.  Behind every great religious leader is a surprised mother in law.  That is, Simon was married.  Peter was married.  I am not camping out on this verse.  I don’t plan to stay here for the whole sermon and build a campfire and dwell forever on the domestic details of Peter, the rock on whom the church was built.  I’m just saying…

Never doubt that a few people, a teacher and two sets of brothers for example, can change things.

How we live makes a difference to others.  In particular, this Lent, we shall meditate on how we cyberlive.  Every half hour we are making choices in our means and mode of discourse, to enhance toward human being our way of being, or to degrade our way of being from human being.  Technology is not neutral.  It is a complex of choices.  And yes, we choose, but we do not choose our choices.

Notice some of the detail in this holy, inspired, inspiring passage.  Matthew leaves out the prayer scene, in his use of Mark, and Luke retains it.  Why?  Simon’s mother in law is singled out, without others from the family named.  Why?  The demons again know Jesus and again are silenced.  A  bigger, Why?  The crowd comes to healing at sundown.  To respect the Sabbath?  But Jesus has already healed on the Sabbath (see last week), and again with Simon’s mother in law. So, Why? How alike are healings and exorcisms?  And the word for city is really town\city, komepolis: ‘not just a select few, but the whole city’ is gathered for healing.  There is a broad human longing well represented here. It is our longing, too.  Jesus ‘comes forward/out’ in order to preach. Jesus and his opponents are engaged in battle over disputed territory.  Mark is the book of secret epiphanies.

We remember best what is most personal.  So, still, 20 centuries later, the most important aspect of pastoral ministry, the sermon aside, is every week the 25 visits one makes to listen to the faithful:  at work, in town, at home, in hospital, on the phone, on the screen, all.  Your job is threefold:  visit the people, visit the people, visit the people.

How I miss Peter Gomes.  I miss his voice, his presence, his grace.  But you remember his admonition about ministry.  You ask me the secret of my success in ministry at Harvard over forty years?  I give it to you in a single word: ubiquity.  I am everywhere.  I go everywhere.  I attend everything.  I enter every building and dorm.  I walk through every yard and hill and valley and molehill.  I go where I am invited.  I go where I am not invited.  I go where I am expected.  I go where I am not expected. Surprise!  It’s me.  You ask my secret?   I give it to you in a word: ubiquity.  I am ubiquitous.

Would you practice, enjoy and master ministry?  Remember that word.

Prevenient Grace:  Social

Said John Wesley:  And the whole city was gathered together at the door. O what a fair prospect was here!  Who could then have imagined that all these blossoms would die away without fruit?…Rising a great while before day…So did he labor for us both day and night…From this time they forsook their employ and constantly attended him.  Happy they who follow Christ at the first call. (Notes, loc. cit.)

Every now and then, upon a quiet morning or evening, we have an awareness that a lot more is going on, in and among and around us than we often recognize.
  
One leader from our area encouraged his colleagues: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, the dream shall never die”
 
We need such a social imagination:  a common faith with Dewey, a common ground with Thurman, a common hope with Hill, a commonwealth in the Bay State.  We need such a robust social imagination, a social holiness to yoke with a personal holiness.  Proust:  ‘How could I be expected to believe in a common origin uniting two names which had entered my consciousness, one through the low and shameful gate of experience, and the other by the golden gate of imagination?” (RTP, 676)
 
Our personal healing relies on our social healing.  The employment of one worker requires the health of the company, and beyond that the health of the community.  Listen to this leading voice from 1988: ‘we have vastly underestimated how deeply ingrained are the organizational and cultural rigidities that hamper our ability to execute…structures that repel top talent…we evaded relentless focus on quality’ (a GM executive)

The poor now receive some comment in our hearing, across our land.  This is to our benefit, though our lack of memory and the capacity to imagine what poverty feels like weakens our effort.  We need to recall our parents and grandparents accounts of potato soup during the depression.  We need to remember the reports on homeless children, living today in cars in central Florida.  We need to take to heart the account of the daughter of university professors now living as a single mother in Chicago and saying, ‘I have fallen out of the middle class’.  We need to think about the couple in western Maine without heating oil, depending on the electric stove and an income of $1,200 a month (NYT, 2/4/12)

Blessed St. Chrysostom could teach us about the poor: ours for them should be a just, useful, and suitable intercession…the rich need the poor:  the poor are necessary for the spiritual well being of the rich…your brother is more truly God’s temple than any church building…show a natural compassion…it will make you more humane for your own salvation…enjoy luxury in moderation, then give the rest away…some are sent out to be dependent upon the hospitality of others;  theirs is the ministry of the mendicant…the sign of the mendicant church calls forth generosity…serve the poor under all conditions and circumstances…the poor are the bearers of God’s spirit in a way that the rich are not…all goodness in the world is a reflection of God’s grace…

We might remember Border Parker Bowne:  ‘I am determined to protect the independence and variety of experience’.

And Martin Luther King:  Love: that force which all the great religions have known…somebody must have religion enough to cut hate off…redemptive good will toward all humankind…a love centric view is what we need (MLK)

As a nation we don’t learn from the past and we don’t plan for the future:  we are persons in community!  The person and who she is depends and the community and what it is.  We need to remember: Human dignity requires the love of ideals for their own sake, but nothing requires that the love will be requited (S Nieman).  For our most diffucult work and for most perilous projects (Niehdl?) we most need:  moral governance, transparency, self-critique, regard for the poor, and continuous leadership and group discussions.

Coda

Let us pray (a prayer from Vatican II):
We stand before you Holy Spirit
Conscious of our weakness and sinfulness
But aware that we gather in your name

Come to us, remain with us,
And enlighten our hearts.

Give us light and strength
To know your will,
Make it our own,
And to live it in our lives.

Guide us by your wisdom,
Support us by your power
For you are God.

You desire justice for all:
Enable us to uphold the rights of others;
Do not allow us to be misled by ignorance
Or corrupted by fear or favor.

Unite us to yourself in the bond of love
And keep us faithful to all that is true.

As we gather in your name
May we temper justice with love
So that all our decisions
May be pleasing to you
And be worthy of the reward
Promised to good and faithful servants.

You live and reign with the Father and the Son,
One God, forever and ever.

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