Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Today, John gives us the marrow of GMHopkins’ hope:
Thou mastering me
God giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.
We turn to the poetry of experience and Scripture and tradition and reason to help us. For five Sundays, concluding today, we have journeyed together, from activity to awareness, from motion to mindfulness, from sensation to reflection. In particular we are trying faithfully to gain some ground, some purchase, in the interplay of technology and faith, of culture and Christ.
Over six years, in Lent, from this pulpit and nave, together we have tried to engage the best thought of those whose own expression of faith may differ from ours: those who affirm a Scripture Alone (sola Scriptura) understanding of authority, though we do not here; those who lean more toward Paul and less toward the Gospels, though we do not here; those who privilege the death tradition of Jesus over the life tradition, the cross over the cradle (fit considerations for Lent in any case), though we do not here. In 2007, then, we grappled with John Calvin in Lent; in 2008 with St. Paul; in 2009 with Derision and Decision; in 2010 with Atonement; in 2011 with Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and this year with Jacques Ellul, who coined the phrase, think globally act locally.
First, we look again to our own experience, trusting our experience.
This week a radio listener sent me a cartoon. God is sitting on a cloud, holding a computer and talking to an angel. God says, ‘I just answered a prayer and mistakenly hit ‘reply all’.
Park your car. Save your money. Do not ‘reply all’. So you will have good influence on the environment, the economy and the culture.
In our own experience, we are testing the spirit of truth, trying to move from fingertips to mindfulness, from sensation to reflection in the heart of the digital age.
Midway from sensation to reflection, we test ourselves by practice this coming week:
- On Monday, aver: wherever you are, be there.
- On Tuesday: before you check your face book, face your checkbook.
- On Wednesday, decide: orders need borders: respond to voice in one day, email etc in three days, writing in one week.
- On Thursday, choose: make a Lenten exception: answer your non emergency email all on Wednesday each week.
- On Friday, raise the bar: respond to facebook and twitter with text, to text with email, to email with voice, to voice with letter, to letter with visit.
- On Saturday, remember: electronic communication 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.
- Come Sunday, of course: attend or listen to Marsh Chapel.
We have come into a time when, across wide stretches of common life, it is thought that sending an electronic communication alone constitutes doing something lasting or fruitful. Yet no one is born or dies on screen, literally or spiritually. No one connects with someone, in a heart sense, on screen. No one sees through the window of the soul on screen, nor feels a touch of physical love on screen, nor senses the breath and closeness of being human on screen. Most significantly, no one speaks by email. There is no speech nor are there words, their voice is not heard. Language, your mother tongue, takes years to acquire, even at an elementary level. The use of language, your mother tongue, in the company of others, takes even longer to learn. You cannot learn in front of a screen how to hear. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God, as the Scripture affirms. How do you watch the mind and tongue play forward and backward with a thought aborning when there is no tongue to hear, no head to see, as the shifting and sifting occur? How do you learn the habits of deep listening, when all you do is scan? How do you experience the delight of unexpected humor, the force of interruption, the concentration of heart to heart with an unforeseen agreement? Honor your father and mother (tongue) that thy days may be long upon the earth.
Second with reverence we listen to the Holy Scriptures.
Our gospel is from John 12. In John, Jesus demarcates the limits of individualism during a wedding in Cana. Jesus pillories pride by night with Nicodemus. Jesus unwraps the touching self-presentations of hypocrisy in conversation at the well. Jesus heals a broken spirit. Jesus feeds the throng with two fish and five barley loaves. Jesus gives sight and insight, bifocal and stereoptic, to a man born blind. Jesus comes upon dead Lazarus and bring resurrection and life. He brings the introvert out of the closet of loneliness. He brings the literalist out of the closet of materialism. He brings the passionate out of the closet of guilt. He brings the dim-witted out of the closet of myopia. He brings the church out of the closet of hunger. He brings the dead to life.
Here the Gospel affirms Jesus’ coming crucifixion as his glorification, one of the most important and repeated emphases in the fourth gospel. The seed falls, dies, is buried, and wondrously comes forth with fruit. In our community, here at Boston University, not a day goes by that I do not rub shoulders with this Gospel. Those who teach the younger do so in a generative mode. They are willing to let a seed fall, be planted and die—a lecture given but perhaps not appreciated; a suggestion made but not heeded; a great hope proferred but not embraced. To teach is to die, hour by hour, in the hope that a long time from now—decades from now—the seed will bear fruit. That takes faith. That takes a cruciform self understanding. So you who learn and teach may hear John today.
But why are we hearing John today? Because we used the lectionary, a shared schedule of readings, used by most Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches.
For five reasons we continue to use the lectionary here.
First, both the ecumenical consensus and the United Methodist history of Marsh Chapel encourage us to do so. Particularly this choice and golden gift to present and future church unity is a treasure to be protected.
Second, the readings provide a basis for coherent development of an hour long service—20 minutes of sermon, 20 minutes of music, 20 minutes of liturgy—on a common basis.
Third, Marsh Chapel provided some of the influence and early work on the lectionary itself, which history and labor we want to honor.
Fourth, we preach to some 50,000 radio listeners per week, many of whom have already attended their own church—or are about to do—wherein the same lessons are read; this gives us a vital connection to our virtual congregation.
Fifth, it keeps thematic preachers like this one speaking to you today, from only riding his or her favorite themes and texts, say Grace and Love, and avoiding less attractive themes, say Hell and High Water. We intend to continue to utilize the common lectionary here.
There are nonetheless serious problems with lectionary use. Let us name five of these, too.
First, and speaking as non-lectionary preacher, the small bits of scripture make difficult larger preaching lenses—a sermon on the book of Jonah, for example, or a great theological topic like Redemption, or, as we are doing again this lent, a series of sermons on a major theme—our Faith and Technology theme say—which encompass more than four fragments of scripture.
Second, the lectionary greatly aids those who already know their Bible, but confuses those who do not. If you know that Genesis is the first book in the Bible, is part of the Pentateuch or Books of Moses, is the origin of thought on creation and covenant, and precedes all the other 65 Biblical books, you have a way of hearing a snippet from Genesis 17 in a way that makes sense. But if you have no idea about Genesis, the passage is opaque. First you have to have arithmetic—the six portions of Scripture (OT: Law, Prophets, Writings; NT: Gospels, Letters, Apocalypses), the names of the books, the flow of the whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation—before you can do algebra (compare Numbers to John, Psalm 107 to Psalm 100, and so on). The lectionary cannot teach you the Bible. For that you need to study one book at a time (so, our study of Mark with Rev. Yoon following worship here), or study the whole Bible in a year (so, the still excellent UMC DISCIPLE Bible Study) or read the Bible, a passage a day, from cover to cover. You need to add and subtract before you take on quadratic equations.
Third, there is more than one lectionary. Yes, the churches’ selection of readings and seasons is one, and we could say primary. But there are others. Every local congregation has its annual ‘lectionary’—from annual meeting to stewardship Sunday to children’s day. For us here this includes monthly luncheon, fellowship in September, on Parents’ Weekend, at Christmas, in Hymn Sing (this Sunday!), at Easter Breakfast, and on Patriots Day (in addition to various subgroup gatherings for Adult Classes, for Men, for Women, for Students, for Families with Children, and people shall we say ‘at mid life’) and Bach Sunday. Also, every congregation has a denominational lectionary, provided by the prevailing judicatory (so for Methodists that includes annual conference, student Sunday, one great hour of sharing, and Aldersgate Sunday). At Marsh Chapel, our judicatory is Boston University, so we observe Matriculation, Parents’ and Alumni Weekends, Lessons and Carols, Martin Luther King Sunday, This I Believe, Baccalaureate, and Commencement. Yet there is still another lectionary—not Liturgical Calendar nor Local Calendar nor Denominational Calendar, but national calendar. Like it or not, the fourth of July has symbolic and liturgical meaning, as to some degree do Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, and Ground Hog Day. Think of last year: ‘9/11’ needed attention. Consequently, the Scriptural lectionary is in creative tension with these other three.
Fourth, it is usually difficult fully to interpret three or four lessons in one 22 minute sermon. So, some are either lightly or under interpreted. This can leave people puzzled, leaving church tangled up with a dark psalm, or an apocalyptic prediction, or a gender unfriendly proverb, or the pronunciation of Methusela. If you do not teach people, for instance, that the Gospel of John includes an ancient form of anti-semitism abhorrent to real Christianity, (so well recounted in last evening’s program for the brilliant St John Passion) they can leave church, or the hearing of the sermon, mistaken about the gospel. One great failure of our pulpits in our time is the failure of our preachers regularly and creatively to root our sermons in the known history, the understood sociology, and the particular theology of each passage. But to do so takes sermonic time (and much more time in sermonic development).
Fifth, and last, as my old Navy chaplain assistant minister used to say: How can somebody in Nashville know what passage my congregation most needs to hear this week? The lectionary makes lazy preachers, who do not regularly sift and scour the whole Scripture. One size does not necessarily fit all.
Third, we turn to our tradition. Our Lenten interlocutor this year, similar in choice to those over the five previous years, has been Jacques Ellul, whose writing on technology and theology foreshadowed a generation ago some of our own current experience. By ‘thinking globally’ in this over used phrase which has become his grave marker, Ellul meant that we should think sub specie aeternitatis, think eternally if you will. Hence the importance for him of Scripture and of his favorite interpreter, Karl Barth. By ‘acting locally’ Ellul meant for us to live as salt, light and sheep, as those who practice Christianity; it captures our sense of hope. Faith offers: 1. Transcendence 2. Promise 3. New Creation (present now). Here is the last and briefest of the Lenten litanies offered to evoke Ellul’s thought. Hear it as you would a psalm or an aria, listen with the ear as well as the mind:
In our time intelligence is set free from dogmas but has become a slave to means.
‘In my own life, I confronted the demands of Marx and the demands of the Bible and put them together.’ Marx spoke to the economic situation. Yes. But he did not have all the answers to the greater matters—life, death, love.
I set up a Parallel (camping) university, and focused my volunteer work on 1. Delinquent youth 2. Environment.
A person needs to become someone who can use the technologies and at the same time not be used by, assimilated by, or subordinated to them…prepare to live in technology and at the same time against technology…develop a critical awareness of the modern world’ 83
‘The Christian is one who brings as much free play as possible into the parts of society …that are linked to one another’ 110
Two strong teachers from my own past embody this same dialetic: Lloyd Easton at Ohio Wesleyan, a BU PhD and fifth generation personalist philosopher, and expert on the writings of the young Marx on society and culture (so his book of that title); and Christopher Morse of Union Theological Seminary, a great student of both Calvin and Barth, who taught them in a place and time when they were all but forgotten in the hey day of Cone, Guttierez, Harrison, Koyama, and liberation theology in general
Fourth, we set our reflective reason to work.
On a personal level, something triggered for me one night last week, in the grace of table fellowship. That is, the emergence in a welcoming home, over a nice meal, in a meaningful setting, of a combination of fellowship, education, and service, in a natural, organic way (not to say without preparation, planning and work) is an apocalypse of what the grace to which the church bears witness is all about, I think. There was something real and really afoot, and for that I was really thankful. In every dimension this radiant table fellowship militated against impersonal communication. It is the communion, the companionship for which we hunger.
Let us be mindful. Let us reason together.
Hit and run electronic communication produces a mindset that tends to emphasize the short run. (Mayor Bloomberg in NYC said as much this week). Aerial bombardment forms of electronic communication tend to draw the mind to the very present. Click and stick rejoinders, used repeatedly through the day, from screen to screen, voiceless and voluminous, can produce a mind, or absence of mind, that then can influence ranges of behavior beyond the technical. That is, our forms of electronic interaction can have a coarsening effect on our culture. Such communication, as silent as deadly, can enfeeble our relations, make us unprepared and ill practiced in the art and so in the voice of acquaintance, friendship, and love.
We are so sensationally habituated to distanced, cold, hard, electronic, visual, voiceless intercourse, that our human and even most intimately human intercourse—ourselves ostensibly at our warmest and best—becomes itself distanced, cold, hard, electronic, visual, and voiceless. Where is the voice of the Song of Solomon in our residences and dwellings? Or the voices of Juliet and Romeo? You may not want to hear this or trust it unless I send it by email. But it is still the case. Our technology is swamping and drowning our theology. And it is the youngest, most nubile, those moving from nubility to nobility, and so most innocently vulnerable among us who are most harmed.
We at Marsh Chapel have both an avuncular and a pastoral role to play in teaching and helping, by how we live and by what we say and by how we say, and what we live for.
As we at Marsh Chapel attempt to model dimensions of health and safety, across our community and campus, and particularly in a time fraught with difficulty in the areas of sexuality and violence, let us persevere in three discreet directions. Ellul would identify them as salt, light and sheep. First, let us keep the feast, and be present on Sunday to witness to faith, and to be nourished together by the salt that brings savor. Your bodily presence in worship helps others. Second, let us walk in the light, come to the light, and walk in the light, by listening for God’s word, for good, and naming and claiming the good. Third, let us make of this sacred space a safe place, sacred space—safe place, as those who have a Shepherd who knows and loves his sheep.
Experience, Scripture, Tradition, Reason. You have taken a road less traveled, a path from sensation to reflection. May the mindfulness of Lent prepare you for the mystery of Easter. We turn to the poets to help us. John Henry Newman:
“Let us preach You without preaching;
not by words but by our example;
by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what we do,
the evident fullness of the love our hearts bear to You.” (J H Newman)
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel