Archive for April, 2012

Watch Over One Another in Love

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

Click here to listen to the full service.
Click here to listen to the sermon only.
John 10: 11-18

Dean Hill

The description of the faithful life, the life of the community of faith, professed by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, is our theme on this Good Shepherd Sunday, in which we hear again, for the last time this school year, the beauty of Bach, in a cantata of praise:  ‘watch over one another in love’.   On these Sundays we hope to hear the music speak, preach, announce the Gospel of grace.  On these and all Sundays we also hope to hear the words sing, harmonize and beautify.  Music that speaks and words that sing:  for these in the enchantment of worship we do hunger and thirst.

The Gospel of the beloved disciple, and the first letter in that same tradition, are themselves canticles of love.  A new commandment we are given:  love one another.  Love one another says the Risen Christ, even as I have loved you.  By this they will know who you are, if you love one another.  There is no diminution of authority, as the Shepherd lays down his life.  What he lays down, he has the power also to lift up.  Our image of the good Shepherd is good enough, but not strong enough.  His embrace embraces the globe, sheep of multiple folds, other sheep not of this fold.  Not all faithful people are Christian, Protestant, Methodist, Boston University Marsh Chapel people.  There are many ways of keeping faith.  Our feeling for the good Shepherd is good enough but not powerful enough.  He knows, he knows his own, even as he is known by God.  Our image of the good Shepherd is good enough but not full enough.  One flock, one shepherd:  take away from the noise of your differences.  When we love we are one, one flock, one Shepherd, one God who is above all and through all and in all.

First John came along to sharpen up what the Gospel left open.  The Gospel of Spirit became the Letter of commandment.  The Gospel of community, beloved community, became the Letter of authority, ecclesiastical authority.  The Gospel of inspiration became the Letter of instruction.  The Gospel of freedom became the Letter of love.  The Gospel of Incarnation became the Letter of responsibility.  There is no mistaking the announcement of grace, a call to obedience, in 1 John.  To love is to take responsibility.  To love is to be responsive, responsible, to take responsibility.  By this we know love…If any one has…and sees…and closes his heart…how does God’s love abide in him?…We should believe and love one another.  Would you love?  Then you will take responsibility. It is wonderful to have the Gospel.  It is good also to have the Letter.

Dr Jarrett, speaking of love and responsibility, I wish every student at our University, and every listener in earshot of our voices, could know the intimate, communal, choral, consanguinity of singing in this choir.  I wish all could have some measure, some version, of this choral community in grace, freedom, love and responsibility.  It is an experience of really being alive, an experience of love, an act of joyful responsive, responsibility that together we take.  We hunger for words that sing.  We thirst for music that speaks.  Help us to listen in love for illuminating moments in today’s music…

Dr. Jarrett

Though written to celebrate Pentocost Sunday, this morning’s cantata has everything to do with watching over one another in love and grace, in the model of the Spirit’s habitation of the soul. Cantata 172 ‘ Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten’ was written in 1714 during Bach’s tenure in the town of Weimar.

The themes are grace – in particular Gnadenkuss, ‘the kiss of grace’ – the reviving of the soul – listen for the word ‘erquicken’ – and the broader theme of friendship. In the 14th chapter of John, Jesus prepares his disciples for his departure from earthly life. ‘Friends, if ye love me, keep my commandments, and I will give you another Comforter’. The other Comforter – our constant friend and companion in Grace – the Holy Spirit.

The cantata opens in celebration, complete with festival trumpets and timpani. They continue in the bass aria, heralding the presence of the triune God and the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in John chapter 14. The nature of the spirit among us is explored in the fluid, breezy lines of the tenor aria which follows. The companionship of the Holy Spirit is revealed in the duet for Soprano and Alto. Here, the Soprano gives voice to the human Soul, and the Alto sings as the voice of the Sprit. Note the text sung by the Alto – I will refresh you, my Child – erquicken – Take the Kiss of Grace from me – GnadenKuss – and finally, and perhaps most beautifully, I am yours, and you are mine! Interwoven in this texture, listen for the solo oboe unfolding in intricate ornamentation the famous chorale. ‘Komm Heilige Geist, Herre Gott’. The chorale which follows is fast becoming a personal favorite for me. The intimacy and life-refreshing presence of the Spirit is detailed in this, the fourth stanza of Phillip Nicolai’s Wie schön leuchtet”

Take me with friendship in your arms, that I might become warmed by your grace!

The cantata concludes with a reprise of the opening movement in full celebration of the Spirit’s Kiss of Grace, and the possibility of life’s fulfillment with the Spirit in, around, through, and among us.

Dean Hill

We shall go forth together.  We shall live together the commandment of belief and love.  We shall trust the shelter of the Shepherd.  We shall bring salt to the meal of life.  We shall bring light to the dwellings of life.  We shall be sheep in another’s fold, little children who love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.  With God’s help, we shall so order our lives that we learn, better and better, day by day to watch over one another in love.  Of us, pointing to us, here and now, over time, we shall hope, others will see and say, they do watch over one another in love.

You, you Marsh Chapel, you are leading the way.  You are taking responsibility.  Others will follow.  You are leading the way in the affirmation of the full humanity of gay people.  Others will follow.  Not for you the earlier habits of treating some as 5/5ths and others as 3/5ths human.   Not just baptism, confirmation, eucharist, penance and unction for all, but marriage and ordination for all, too.  You are leading.  Others will follow. You are leading the way in heavenly worship.  Not for you a contemporary worship which is neither contemporary nor worship. Not for you the substitution of entertainment for enchantment.  Not for you the occupation of pulpits by unordained, untrained, uneducated, unconnected ministers.  Not for you the elaborated expenditures of denominations and church leaders who lose their grounding in the basic ministry of the church:  the Word of God, the Sacraments of Grace, the service of neighbor.  You are leading the way.  Others will follow.  Why, your example and its shadow will be felt as far into the future as a truly open church, as far down into the trembling depths of every phobia that every closed a heart, or a mind, or a door, as far out into the globe as every poor child.  Today I add: as far away, in every way, as a United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Florida.  You are leading the way.  Others will follow.

May God give us a mind for words that sing.  May God give us a tongue for songs that speak.   So fed, may we watch over one another in love.

Come Almighty to deliver, let us all thy life receive

Suddenly return and never, nevermore thy temples leave

Thee we would  be always blessing, serve thee as thy hosts above

Pray and praise thee without ceasing , glory in thy perfect love

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

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

What is Possible

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

Click here to hear the full service.
Click here to hear the sermon only.
Luke 24: 36b-48

Sermon text is unavailable at this time.

~Ms. Liz Douglass
Chapel Associate for LGBTQ and UCC Ministry

Thurman and Resurrection

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

Click here to hear the full service.
Click here to hear the sermon only.
John 20: 19-31

The sermon this morning is not really a sermon.  “That is odd,” you may be saying to yourself.  “It says right here in my bulletin: ‘Sermon’!”  And so it does.  Alas, when tasked with considering the careful crafting of the religious and life experience into communicative text undertaken by the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, particularly on the topic of resurrection, it quickly becomes clear that it would be no small feat to attempt a presentation of his thoughts on the subject approaching anything like adequacy.  There are those in our midst who could do so; I am not one of them.  It would, of course, be best, if Dr. Thurman were here in his own pulpit to present his thoughts himself, but even in so hallowed a nave as Marsh Chapel, we do not pretend to be able to fulfill this ideal, even under such an auspicious sermon title as “Thurman and Resurrection.”  Thus, we are left with a less than ideal option, namely that of proffering some meager correlations between the themes of the resurrection Gospel according to John and the thoughts and writings of Dr. Thurman presented in the voice of one untimely born two years after Thurman’s death.

Peace

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ (John 20: 19-21).

“Peace in Our Lives,” a meditation of Howard Thurman from his book, The Growing Edge.

I make of my life an offering to God.

Fierce indeed is the grip by which we hold on to our lives as our private possession.  The struggle to achieve some sense of individuality in the midst of other people and other things is grim.  Always we are surrounded by persons, forces, and objects which lay siege to us and seek to make us means to their ends or at least to their fulfillment.  The demand is ever present to distinguish between the self and the not-self.

There are moments of enthusiasm when with mounting excitement we absorb ourselves in something beyond ourselves.  When this happens we fight at length to get back home, to come again into the familiar place, to be secure in our own boundaries.  Again and again the process repeats itself, wearing down the walls that shut us in.

Of course, a man may by early resolution, by frustration, by bitter experience withdraw more and more from all involvements.  By this process he seeks to immunize himself against hurts and from what seems to be certain disaster.  Behold such a man.  His spirit shrinks, his mind becomes ingrown, his imagination inward turning.  The wall surrounding him becomes so thick that deep within he is threatened with isolation.  This is the threat of death.  Sometimes his spirit breaks out in reverse by giving voices to inward impulses, thus establishing by the sheer will to survival a therapy for the corrosion of his spirit.

For all of this religion has a searching word.  “Deep within are the issues of life.”  “The rule of God is within.”  “If thou hadst known the things which belong unto thy peace.”  There is a surrender of the life that redeems, purifies, and makes whole.  Every surrender to a particular person, event, circumstance, or activity is but a token surrender, the temporary settling of the passing and transitory.  They end in tightening the wall of isolation around the spirit.  They are too narrow, too limited, finally unworthy.

The surrender must be to something big enough to absolve one from the little way, the meager demand.  There can be no tranquility for the spirit unless it has found something about which to be tranquil.  The need for a sense of peace beyond all conflict can only be met by something that gathers up into itself all meaning and all value.  It is the claim of religion that this is only found in God.  The pathways may vary but the goal is one.

 

Spirit

When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. (John 20: 22).

“God is With Me” and “God is Present,” two meditations of Howard Thurman from his book, Meditations of the Heart.

God is with me, in the sense that He is the Creator and the Sustainer of life.  This is a part of my general thought and experience.  There is something so big and vast about God as Creator and Sustainer of all of life that it is hard for me to feel that I am included.

God is with me.  All around me are certain expressions of orderliness, of beauty, of wonder and delight.  The regularity of sunrise and sunset, the fragile loveliness of a wisp of cloud fringed with silver, the wonder of day dawning and the delight of companionship – all these are His handiwork.

God is with me.  Again and again I am stirred by some experience of tenderness, some simple act of gratuitous kindness moving from one man to another, some quiet deed of courage, wisdom or sacrifice or some striking movement of unstudied joy that bursts forth in the contagion of merry laughter.  I know God is with me.

God is with me.  Always there is the persistent need for some deep inner assurance, some whisper in my heart, some stirring of the spirit within me – that renews, re-creates and steadies.  Then whatever betides of light or shadow, I can look out on life with quiet eyes.

God is with me.

 

God is present with me this day.

God is present with me in the midst of my anxieties.  I affirm in my own heart and mind the reality of His presence.  He makes immediately available to me the strength of His goodness, the reassurance of His wisdom and the heartiness of His courage.  My axieties are real; they are the result of a wide variety of experiences, some of which I understand, some of which I do not understand.  One thing I know concerning my anxieties: they are real to me.  Sometimes they seem more real than the presence of God.  When this happens, they dominate my mood and possess my thoughts.  The presence of God does not always deliver me from anxiety but it always delivers me from anxieties.  Little by little, I am beginning to understand that deliverance from anxiety means fundamental growth in spiritual character and awareness.  It becomes a quality of being, emerging from deep within, giving to all the dimensions of experience a vast immunity against being anxious.  A ground of calm underlies experiences whatever may be the tempestuous character of events.  This calm is the manifestation in life of the active, dynamic Presence of God.

God is present with me this day.

 

Forgiveness

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ (John 20: 23).

A selection from the chapter “Reconciliation,” from Howard Thurman’s book, Disciplines of the Spirit.

The concern for reconciliation finds expression in the simple human desire to understand others and to be understood by others.  These are the building blocks of the society of man, the precious ingredients without which man’s life is a nightmare and the future of his life on the planet is doomed.  Every man wants to be cared for, to be sustained by the assurance that he shares in the watchful and thoughtful attention of others – not merely or necessarily others in general but others in particular.  He wants to know that – however vast and impersonal all life about him may seem, however hard may be the stretch of road on which he is journeying – his is not alone, in an awareness sufficient to hold him against ultimate fear and panic.  It is precisely at this point of awareness that life becomes personal and the individual a person.  Through it he gets some intimation of what, after all, he finally amounts to, and the way is cleared for him to experience his own spirit.

The need to be cared for is essential to the furtherance and maintenance of life in health.  This is how life is nourished.  The simpler the form of life, the simpler the terms of caring…

It is in human life that the need to be cared for can be most clearly observed, however, because here it can be most clearly felt.  There was a lady in my church in San Francisco who felt very poignantly the need to be needed beyond the limits of her family.  One day she went with a small group to visit the children’s ward in a hospital.  She noticed a baby in a crib against the wall.  Despite the things that were going on in the ward and the excitement created by a group of English bell-ringers and their tunes, this little child remained lying on his side with his face to the wall.  But it was discovered that he was not asleep – his eyes were open in an unseeing stare.  The nurse explained that the entire ward was worried because the child responded to nothing.  Feeding had to be forced.  “Even if he cried all the time, that would be something to work with.  But there is nothing.  And he is not sick as far as anything clinical can be determined.  He will surely die unless something is done.”  Then the lady decided to try to do something.  Every day for several weeks she visited the ward, took the little boy in her arms, talked to him, hummed little melodies and lullabies, and did all the spontaneous things that many years ago she had one with her own son.  For a long time there was absolutely no response.  One day when she lifted the child into her arms there was a slight movement of the body, and the eyes appeared to be somewhat in focus.  This was the beginning.  Finally, on a later day, as her voice was heard greeting the nurse when she came into the ward, the child turned over, faced the ward, and tried to raise himself to a sitting position.  Things happened rapidly thereafter until he was restored to health.

Let us keep clearly in mind the issue here.  The need to be cared for is fundamental to human life and to psychic and spiritual health and well-being.  When this need is not met, the individual is thrown into conflict, an inner conflict that can only be resolved when the need is honored.  The conflict expresses itself in many ways, from profound mental disturbance to the complete projection upon others of the hate and violence the person himself is feeling.  The individual experiences the fulfillment of his need in a diffused way, by living in an atmosphere of acceptance and belonging.  It is here that simple techniques of co-operation and adjustment are developed, which in time become the channels through which the intent to honor this deep need in others is implemented.  Unwillingness to accept ill will, hatred, or violence directed toward oneself from another as the fundamental intent is the role of the reconciler, the function of reconciliation.  “Father, forgive them, for the know not what they do,” says Jesus as he is dying on the cross.

 

 

Doubt

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ (John 20: 24-29).

An excerpt from the Baccalaureate Address delivered by Dr. Thurman at Spelman College in May of 1980.

There is in every person something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in herself… There is in you something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. Nobody like you has ever been born and no one like you will ever be born again—you are the only one.

If you can not hear the sound of the genuine within you, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching and if you hear it and then do not follow it, it was better that you had never been born. You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all the existences, and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.

So the burden of what I have to say to you is, “What is your name—who are you—and can you find a way to hear the sound of the genuine in yourself?” There are so many noises going on inside of you, so many echoes of all sorts, so many internalizing of the rumble and the traffic going on in your minds, the confusions, the disorders by which your environment is peopled that I wonder if you can get still enough—not quiet enough—still enough to hear rumbling up from your unique and essential idiom the sound of the genuine in you. I don’t know if you can. But this is your assignment

The sound of the genuine is flowing through you. Don’t be deceived and thrown off by all the noises that are a part even of your dreams, your ambitions that you don’t hear the sound of the genuine in you. Because that is the only true guide that you will ever have and if you don’t have that you don’t have a thing. Cultivate the discipline of listening to the sound of the genuine in yourself.

 

Life

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (John 20: 30-31).

Selections from Howard Thurman’s The Search for Common Ground.

When I was a small boy I went across the meadow to visit with one of my chums.  I was running around the house when I heard a voice, which came from a knock on the windowpane.  I looked up to see my friend’s father standing in the room.  As soon as he caught my attention, he motioned for me to turn around and come into the house through the front door.  When I entered the room he pointed through an open window.  There I saw his baby girl, less than a year old, sitting in the sand playing with a rattlesnake.  It was an amazing and deeply frightening experience to watch.  The child would turn the snake over on its side and do various things with him; the snake would crawl around her, then crawl back.  It was apparent that they were playing together.

I was sent back into the yard to stand guard to keep anyone from coming around the house to frighten them.  For if their harmony were broken by sudden disharmony created by noise or sudden movement, there would have been violence on earth.  After a while the baby grew tired of playing, turned away, and started crawling toward the back steps; the snake crawled towards the woods on the edge of the yard.  It was then that the father drew a bead on the snake’s head with his shotgun, killing him instantly.  It was as if two different expressions of life, normally antagonistic to each, had dropped back into some common ground and there reestablished a sense of harmony through which they were relating to each other at a conscious level…

The paradox of conscious life is the ultimate issue here.  On the one hand is the absolute necessity for the declaration that states unequivocally the uniqueness of the private life, the awful sense of being an isolate, independent and alone, the great urgency to savor one’s personal flavor – to stand over against all the rest of life in contained affirmation.  While on the other hand is the necessity to feel oneself as a primary part of all of life, sharing at every level of awareness a dependence upon the same elements in nature, caught up in the ceaseless rhythm of living and dying, with no final immunity against a common fate that finds and holds all living things.

Men, all men belong to each other, and he who shuts himself away diminishes himself, and he who shuts another away from him destroys himself.  And all the people said Amen.

~Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+
University Chaplain for Community Life

The Resurrection from the Dead

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Mark 16: 1-8

Preface

The Lord is Risen!  He is Risen Indeed.

Let us ask ourselves how we shall live with these mysterious tidings.

St Mark famously concludes with either an open or a lost ending, either an intentionally ambiguous ending or a lost fragment from the end of a codex.  Either way, we face the Gospel challenge:  how shall we live with these wondrous tidings?  Either way, we pick up where Mark leaves off…

Scientists:  Do they kindle in us a sense of enchantment?  Historians:  Will they firm up in us the freedom to escape?  Philosophers: Could they require of us a respect for eternity?

Is there awaiting us a resurrection from the dead which brings real learning and virtue and piety?

Enchantment

Thirty years ago today, at 6am, our parsonage phone rang, an odd sound in the Easter dawn.  I was already somewhat awake.  The sermon I had hoped to finish the night before lay in jumbled bits on the dining room table.  I was counting on finishing the job early in the morning.  But the morning had thoughts of its own.  This is why we do not advise students to leave the sermon to the last minute.

Over the phone line I could hear a light sobbing.  In our North Country village, it was not common or considered good form to use a formal greeting, such as, ‘Hello, this is Marion’.  It was assumed that one would know from the sound of the voice who was calling.  If you did not, you were clearly ‘from away’, and would be sensed to be an outsider until such time as you did recognize, without formal introduction, the voice and so the personhood of the caller.  This expectation carries to this day, so that, when our dear friends from south of Montreal call and say ‘How are you?’ we are to know who it is who asks.   In the main, we do.

This Easter sunrise sobbing did have no familiar hold to it, so, in the first of several failures that day I had to ask who was calling.  From under the muffled sadness, a name arose.  I will use the name Marion.  Marion was calling because she and her husband, a nearby farmer and a dear friend, were at odds.  6am is not early, by the way, when milking starts at 4am.  The distance from the farm kitchen to the barn, a visible path by sight connecting sink to milking parlor, is not great, in this case thirty feet.  But when there is acrimony that 30 feet, given the daily closeness and interdependence of a bustling farm, might as well be the circumference of the earth.

With this young couple and family we had shared many utterly joyous meals, and some of the finest food ever consumed.  In the autumn, just before dessert, we and our two little children left the dinner table with the farmer and family to help a calf into the world.  Then back to the ice cream and mince pie.  Here we had found real friends, in a winter world at 40 degrees below Fahrenheit zero.  In this home our children had stayed while we spent time in the city, and here they would return many years later to learn to work in the barn in haying season.   I can taste the roast, smell the coffee, feel the warmth, hear the cattle lowing, and see the path from barn to kitchen, right now, as if it were last week.

But there was a breach, a break, something gone wrong, and badly enough to ask a friend for help.  When we went north, the District Superintendent said, ‘They may pound on you a little to see if you are for real”.  They did.  But once they did, and once they trusted, they trusted in full.  A place and a time when a relationship of trust could the bear the weight of an expression of need.

With the sermon lying in tatters, I went down the road two miles, and past the kitchen and into the barn.   The appearance of the minister on Easter morning, in the barn, is a recognition or sign that something is ajar.  John eyed me with that realization, and we had I think a good talk.  It seemed like a moment of reflection and honest hashing out of some not very uncommon marital difference, at least for the moment, worked out.   Into the sunlight I went, with a wave toward the kitchen window.  On the radio I could hear in the barn Louis Armstrong, his unique voice, and a simple tune, its unique melody, saying in full what I felt that Easter:  I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

Our assignment included two churches, the one with the farm family and others and our parsonage just mentioned, and the one ten miles away, ‘the out appointment’.  You know where you stand in the scheme of things when you are the ‘out appointment’.  I hustled back to pick up the sermon scraps, get dressed, and pile us into the car.  I had the great good fortune to have married a certified and excellent organist and choir director, who, two little one in tow, ran the music in both churches.  That was the good news.  The other news was that her dad, with a PhD on Paul Tillich from Iliff, was an excellent preacher, all his life.  She new from music, and she also knew from sermons.  Driving from the ‘out appointment’ back home, she said, ‘Was that an Easter sermon?’  The rest of the ride I remember as remarkably quiet.

Now the second Easter service in the bigger church was starting, and I needed somebody to come and talk to me about my marriage.  No one did.  I looked in vain across the congregation, hoping to see the young farm couple, but they were not there.  I began to collect my sorry self and sorrier sermon, as we sang ‘In the Garden’.  I offered the prayer and began the questionable homily.  Then they came in, and sat, as you have to when you come late on Easter, right down front.  Somewhere in the course of the non Easter, Easter sermon, I noticed something.  His hand just slid over a bit, and sat on top of hers, his left hand on her right, and a holding clasp.

All the hymns of Easter, all the lilies of resurrection Sunday, all the bonnets and suits and parading joys of the end of Lent in all the rest of these thirty years, all the anthems and all the celebrations cannot eclipse the enchantment of a healing, a reconciliation, a hand clasp, in small country church, a long time ago.  A wonderful world, a world of enchantment.  Over dinner, Jan said, well the second went a little better.

M Robinson wrote a bit ago, of her experience in church as a child,  Only in church did I hear experience like mine acknowledged, in all those strange narratives, read and expounded, for all that opaque as figures of angels painted on gold. (DOA, 228)

Escape

Up from the dead can also refer to escape from prison.  In fact, in the long history of Christian faith, inspired by the Word of faith, a sense of liberation, of freedom, of freeing, of escape has been paramount.   Easter morning brings an escape hatch, a map to freedom, a key for the jail cell.

It can happen to individuals, all of us sharing as we do some experience of entrapment. ‘In Adam’s Fall, we sinned all’.

Now with some advantage of reflection, and a few years on which to reflect, I can see by memory, by the mind’s eye, women and men and communities for whom Easter has meant escape.  I wonder if it will be so for you this Easter morning?

Here is a woman whose husband was working but drinking, drinking too much.  Spring came and she confronted him.  He looked for help in the church, and found escape from addiction.  You will find AA groups quite near here, Monday to Friday.

Here is middle aged fellow who had his heart set on a certain job, which he did not get, not even close.   Holy Week, with its recognition of change and failure and loss, connected to him.  He came to church on Easter and heard something.  He was liberated, freed from a false hope.  He set his sights on other jobs, and found one.

Here is woman who has done something for which she is ashamed, unhappy, guilt ridden.  Whether she should have felt any of that is another issue.  She did.  A stone moved away from a grave, and an empty tomb presided over by angels in white, these images said something to her, down deep.  She went home feeling better, and cut herself some slack.

Here is a young person who is pretty sure he has disappointed his parents.  College can instill a lengthened adolescence. In the lilies, trumpets, hymns and words of Easter something jars loose for him.  So what?  I will honor my parents, but with the long life that gives me, I will live my life, not my version of what I think they think my life should be.

But you have to lift the escape hatch.  My friend had an office mate who hated his lunch.  Every day when noon came he opened his bag and said, ‘Oh, this again. Awful.  What a terrible lunch.’  My friend sympathized and then asked one noonday:  ‘Who makes your lunch?’  And the reply:  ‘Oh, I make my own lunch’.

Christ unhelled Hell, and said Margaret Fuller:  ‘each should fulfill her own peculiar secret on her own’.  My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee!

It can also happen to groups.

18 to 23 year olds, according to C. Smith of Notre Dame, lack any capacity for moral discernment, are steadily drunk or drugged, practice amoral sexuality, are severely materialistic and greedy, and with only 4% excepted are entirely apathetic about the hurts and lives of others.  To all these issues, argues he, with a shoulder shrug, emerging young adults respond, ‘Whatever’.  But you know, a problem identified is a problem soon solved.  There is an escape route away from the kind of narcissism, the kind of selfishness that easily entraps many of any age.  That route lies through a daily response, a daily set of responses.   Practice in ethical discussion:  intentional moderation, temperance in use of spirits, a spiritual use of spirits if you will: a recollection that the body is the temple of the Lord:  some experience in the joy of giving:  daily practice at listening, connecting with the needs of others.  Of course I think this is what happens, in the main, on every Sunday morning.  Easter opens the prison house door.  We can learn not always to ‘reply all’.

As M Robinson recently put it: Science cannot serve in the place of religion because it cannot generate an ethic or a morality (DOA, 71)…The banishment of the word ‘liberal’ was simultaneous with the collapse of liberalism itself. (DOA, 260).

We are getting a taste for preemption in our country, you might notice.  Yet nagging at our conscience, at our memory and judgment both, is a sense that attacking others who have not attacked you cannot be lastingly good, nor good judgment.  We can change.  You do not have to be a pacifist to insist that your country, your government not throw the first punch.  We can learn together to save our resources, bank our cash, and look for a more peaceful future.  Love is for the wise.

We can strive for a better life, world, and society.  Adrienne Rich looked for the creation of a society without domination.  We can too.  Marx said ‘History moves with iron necessity toward inevitable results.’  But you don’t believe that, nor do I.  There is at least as much historical evidence for freedom as there is for necessity.  We may need move away from sensation and closer to reflection, to sit quietly with Pascal in his solitary room, and think about the wagers we are making…  We can park our car and care for our planet.

Recently Elaine Pagels, known mostly for her scholarship with regard to Gnosticism and the New Testament, spoke about stopping for a moment in the vestibule of a church at worship, and realizing that “here is a family that knows how to face death” (Pagels, Beyond Belief, 3).   Honest lament and faithful thanksgiving are both parts of facing the uncertain present in light of God’s future.

Can we recall what we affirmed last week?

To the question of evil let us live our answer by choosing the cruciform path of faith.

Let us meet evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity.  Let us remember and that it is not the long sentence of Holy week, with all its phrases, dependent clauses and semi-colons that completes the gospel, but it is the punctuation to come in seven days, the last mark of the week to come in 168 hours, whether it be the exclamation point of Peter, the full stop period of Paul or the question mark of Mary—Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around. The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross. The cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life that has the last word and there is a God to whom we may pray, in the assurance of being heard: “Deliver us from evil”.

Eternity

In the Chapellear Drama center at Ohio Wesleyan University, on which stage our daughter and future son in law met and fell in love, there are several photographs of plays past.  One is from the opening of the center, in 1972, with Shakespeare, of course, The Tempest.  Others show our daughter and her husband, in the 1990’s, with the leads in Sweeney Todd, Once Upon A Mattress, Skylight, the Adding Machine, Antigone, Galileo Galilei.   There are also nameplates for alumni of the theater department, going back into the history of the school, nearly to its founding in 1842, making it the oldest incorporated Methodist school in the country.  I’m just sayin…

It turns out that many future physicians, scholars, lawyers, and others began as thespians.  I stood one evening under the nameplate of one such, Ralph Sockman.  Sockman preached for decades at Christ Church on Fifth Avenue in NYC.  I sometimes pull down one book or another of his sermons, and I sit back and I read and I smile.  They are lastingly good, eternally so one might say.  And, I feel a certain responsibility to support my fellow OWU alumnus, now that he is long dead and largely forgotten, outside of the small circle of devotees to a certain kind of Methodist preaching, at its zenith, nadir and apex.

I tried to hold my children’s attention, that evening, under the nameplate of Sockman, to some little avail.  He tried to give people a ‘lift for living’ this life, by reference to an eternal horizon:  help in time by way of reference to eternity.  They are long, carefully braided sermons, polished and refined.  He spoke though from memory, I am told, without notes, as the British say, ‘ingenious, pithy, and without book’.  He wore a morning coat, I am told, and looped his index finger under the vest button, beside his watch chain, and in that posture he preached.  With beauty.

This winter, one of the few cold late afternoons, I fetched one of his old now out of print volumes.  Whence the book?  I have no idea.  My office over the years has become a last resting place for clergy preaching gowns, old Bibles, various home communion travel kits, and, as in this case, the overflow and unneeded spillage of clergy books.  Someone left it off.   We have a saying in the itinerant ministry, a way of describing somebody who has done what he could in one setting and is waiting for another appointment:  he is packing his books.  Anyway, I read through some of the sermons, and then turned to the last in the collection.

Sockman was preaching about eternity.  It read like a valediction, like maybe the last sermon he gave in some setting, or the last in a year’s efforts, or, maybe, the last of his life.  It raises a good question.   What would you say if you knew this were your last—sermon, letter, conversation, book, paper, speech?  My fellow Battling Bishop, graduate that is of OWU, in four moments, gave his thoughts about heaven.  You may have heard BU’s magnificent rendering of Rachmaninoff’s favorite work, The Bells, also in four parts:  sleigh bells, wedding bells, alarm bells, tolling bells.  Sockman’s last will and testament rang with those sounds.  I give you his symphony, his four bells ringing out a lasting trust in eternity.

Sockman said he had an intuition, a sense of heaven, based on integrity, in four octaves.  He believed in the integrity of personality.  So do I.  He believed in the integrity of creation.  So do I.  He believed in the integrity of Jesus Christ.  So do I.  He believed in the integrity of his own intimations.  So do I.  You can hear him at his best in a single sentence: The larger the body of knowledge we survey, the longer the shoreline of mystery surrounding it. The larger the body of knowledge we survey, the longer the shoreline of mystery surrounding it.  Mystery increases with knowledge, and so, at least possibly, piety with learning, faith with understanding, spirit with mind, and love with education.  The more we know the more we do not know.

I ask you something, especially if you are drawn to faith but not yet convinced.  Can you appreciate the difference between absence and evidence?  Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  The thing about faith is that there is always a leap involved.

When I see a newborn child I feel eternity.  When a couple takes and gives their vows in marriage, I hear the bells of eternity.  When I think about how much I would give to see my Dad again, I think of eternity.  When I hear St. Paul place this life in the context of another life, I yearn for eternity.  When I observe tragedy that has no earthly recompense, and so to have any at all would depend on heaven, I long for eternity.  When I worship on Sunday at Marsh Chapel, I sense eternity.

As m Robinson recently put it: Our civilization believed for a long time in God and the soul and sin and salvation, assuming, whatever else, that meaning had a larger frame and context than this life in this world (DOA, 84).

“All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.” – Thornton Wilder, Our Town

As many of you know, Dad nearly died in September of 2008.  We had two extra years with him before he died in 2010.  In  November of 2008, as he recuperated, I saw him one morning learning to walk all over again, with my mother every present and loving alongside.  It was a miraculous sight, as was the rest of his healing.   He told us in those days about a vision or dream he had had, in the coma.  I share it with you to close, not as evidence of eternity, for heaven neither needs nor admits of evidence from us, but rather as evidence of a longing for eternity, and so a comfort and an encouragement.  He said that in the hours near death he saw a kind of light, shining through what he described as a lattice work.  “Behind and around me I could hear voices”, he said.

Coda

Do you remember what we said last week?

If we believe that life has meaning and purpose

If we believe that the Giver of Life loves us

If we believe that divine love lasts

If we believe that justice, mercy, and humility endure

If we believe that God so loved the world to give God’s only Son

If we believe that Jesus is the transcript in time of God in eternity

If we believe that all God’s children are precious in God’s sight

If we believe grace and forgiveness are the heart of the universe

If we believe that God has loved us personally

If we believe in God

Then we shall all trust God over the valley of the shadow of death

Psalm 46 will carry us home:  God is our refuge and strength…

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Dean of Marsh Chapel

Tensed Time In Eternity

Saturday, April 7th, 2012

Romans 6:3-11

Mark 16:1-8

The Easter Vigil occupies a tense time in the liturgical calendar, clinging to the cusp between adamantine grief over the death of Jesus and suppressed joy at his anticipated resurrection.  The tension between finitude and death on the one hand and the transcendent joy of life above death on the other makes this a liturgical occasion like no other.  Note that I am speaking about liturgical time here, not historical time.  On the historical Saturday after the crucifixion the disciples knew only the death part and had no clue about resurrection.  For all of Saturday they were immobilized by the restrictions of the Sabbath observance and could not move to bury Jesus properly until first-light on Sunday.  Mark’s gospel says that the women on the way to the tomb were fretting about how to get the stone door moved so they could embalm his body. That was a depressing fretfulness, not a tension with hope.  Heavy grief, heavy depression, heavy stone.  When they arrived, they found the stone already moved and a young man looking for all the world like Legolas the Elf sitting in the tomb.  He said Jesus had been raised and ordered them to tell the disciples to meet Jesus up north in Galilee.  But the women were terrified, fled the tomb, and contrary to what they were told said nothing to anyone out of fear.  Heavy. No tension.  Just a world weighted down with ending and loss.  Adamantine boundaries on everything finite and good—nothing crosses over into morning except another day like the last. This is historical time.

In the liturgical time of our Vigil we already know about the Easter outcome balancing the Good Friday.  Liturgical time, with its yearly round, views historical time from the standpoint of eternity made time-like by repetition.  Liturgical time is tense with the contrast between the immeasurable fullness of eternity and the limitations of finite life, which is as resurrection is to death.  From the standpoint of liturgical time, every temporal moment is ripe with that tension and in the Christian liturgical calendar the Easter Vigil is the ripest of all.

Good Friday is emblematic of the limitations of finite life.  Jesus was too young to die.  He had a following filled with enthusiasm for the reform of his religion but they scattered and denied him when things got tough. And they weren’t very good as disciples anyway, especially in Mark’s estimation.  Jesus was unjustly accused, mocked as a fake king, and executed as a criminal, naked in humiliation before his mother, her friends, and the disciple who was his beloved: Jesus was not a hero.  His body was rushed without honor into a tomb before the Sabbath observance.

This is high drama, Jesus’ Passion story.  Our own lives are usually not so extreme.  But each of us has crosses to bear, even we favored ones gathered here.  Imagine life in Darfur!  Each of us has ambitions, many of which are fulfilled but others of which are frustrated, and nothing lasts.  We have friends and enemies, successes and failures, victories and defeats, ambitions and compromises, health and sickness, a span of life and an adamantine end of that span one day.

The truth of historical time is that our lives are filled with good things and bad and then end.  Within only historical time we face the weightiness of finitude with some courage and hope.  Sometimes within historical time our hopes are justified.  But when things are really bad, they are not.  Think of African Americans who hope for the end of racism but know it will not be in their lifetime.  Think of the gay, lesbian, and other sexual minority people who hope for full acceptance but know it will not be in their lifetime.  Sometimes hope is foolish.  Paul hoped for Jesus to return in his lifetime and it did not happen.  By the measures of only historical time, Christianity is an empirical failure.  In the despairs of historical time we hope for surprises and sometimes they simply do not come.

From the standpoint of the eternity of liturgical time we can accept all this.  Life is this hard and Jesus’ crucifixion is a good emblem of this.  But from the standpoint of the eternity of liturgical time, historical time is only a facet of the moments of our lives because we also live in the context of God’s creation in which our finitude, failures, and short spans are part of the immeasurable value of the created cosmos.  In the Christian story, this is the resurrection theme of Easter balancing the death theme of Good Friday. The resurrection theme is articulated within the future tense of historical time: after death comes resurrection. After terrible Good Friday and heavy Holy Saturday comes joyful Easter.  In common Christian symbolism we look for resurrection after death.  We translate the eternal meaning of Jesus’ life into a story with past tense antecedents in the early history of Israel, with the liturgical re-presentations of Jesus actual life into the round of his present tense activities, and with the maneuvers of resurrection and ascension to get Jesus out of the way so that the Church can be Jesus’ future tense continuation.  We have mythologized the historical Jesus so that the glorious eternity of real life within God’s creation can be expressed as if it were a matter of historical time.  If the story of Jesus were not mythologized, if it were taken as existing in only historical time, it could not bear the tension of the historical and eternal.  It would be a story only of failure.  The heart of religion, any religion, including Christianity, is whatever sustains the tension in daily life between the adamantine failures of finitude and the joy of eternity that gives hope for carrying on despite historical hopelessness.  Every religion has its myths that attempt to sustain that tension so that life in history can be lived with the joy of eternity.

The mythology of Jesus has sustained many traditions and pockets of authentic life in the direst of historical circumstances.  But by and large the Jesus mythology has lost its ability to sustain the tension between the finite and infinite for many people in Western cultures, especially since the European wars among Christian nations in the early 20th century.  Extraordinary attempts have been made to provide retellings of the Christian myth and I want to mention four of the most influential in order to illustrate how important mythic form is as the bearer of the truth of the eternal.

The original Star Wars trilogy was standard science fiction that affirmed God front and center as the Force that could be accessed through discipline but used for good or for evil.  For the Star Wars mythology, life is a fight of well-intentioned people and fetching beasties against an evil will; but the course of that fight centers on reconciliation, first of brother and sister separated at birth and then of father and son, the latter being representatives respectively of the Dark Side and the Light.  Standard religious themes of discipleship, mentoring, testing, courage, skill, and inventiveness were given delightful expression, much to the edification of a generation.  The good guys win, of course. Most strikingly, the follow-up Star Wars movies were prequels, not a sequel mirroring the Church living in ambiguous resurrection time.  Instead the prequels explored the fall, the development of the evil Darth Vader out of the best and brightest, and told a story of failed mentoring.  Alas, the victory of the good over the evil in Star Wars seemed too easily fore-ordained to be an emblem of our lives.

Easy victory is not the problem in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  I asked a recent class whether they received their moral and spiritual orientation from the Bible or the Lord of the Rings and the Rings won by at least three to one. Gandalf is a Jesus figure for them, rising from the dead.  Mostly, however, the books display the noble virtues of friendship across unlikely differences, fierce loyalty through protracted failure, patience and true grit, sacrifice for the success of others, and reluctant devotion to the duties of your watch.  The little people win. Unlike the Jesus story, resurrection is a tactical step toward leading one’s party to victory.  No one important and good dies except in ennobling circumstances.  Although Frodo’s early wound never quite heals, it does not keep him from physical and emotional heroism and he gets to sail off into the happy land of the elves at the end.  Gollum seems an interestingly ambiguous character but his murderous greed in the end nails down the victory for the righteous. For all the apparently desperate struggles, victory is complete in launching the glorious new Age of Men within history.  The lessons of the Lord of the Rings are that serious redemption does not happen, that only true grit wins the victory, and that there is nothing like a Church that has to translate with great difficulty an eternal victory into the ongoing affairs of time. This myth is not the Christian one, despite its intent.

The Chronicles of Narnia by Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis draws the opposite lesson from that of the Rings.  It has its share of martial derring-due and a sacrificial hero, Aslan, who dies to redeem someone else and rises again.  But in the concluding Narnia novel, The Last Battle, the good side loses in a slaughter and the forces of evil are victorious until Aslan destroys the world and time.  In dying, the good people and animals retreat through a stable door into a heavenly land beyond history.  History is a lost cause.  But the good people run higher and higher up, farther and farther in, and at each stage the colors get brighter, the sounds clearer, and their vision broader.  In a most remarkable rendition of heaven, Lewis depicts the transition to greater eternal reality, more intense, more deeply real.  Narnia and its history are not half so real as the world in eternal perspective.  But by and large there is not much moral ambiguity in Narnia, as there is not in the Rings.  Good people have straight doubled-edged swords like the English and bad ones have scimitars and worship an evil god from Tashkent.

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is far more sophisticated about moral ambiguity, starting from the childish dualism of evil, as in the murder of Harry’s parents, vs. the good of those who support him. As he ages Harry takes on the increasingly complicated issues of ambiguous heritage, competitive friendship, and the dark side of his best intentions.  Whereas in the Rings, the bad guys are ugly and the good ones beautiful (or at least cute like Gimli and the hobbits), in Rowling’s saga the deformed and ugly are the virtuous ones and the evil humans, the Malfoys, are classically beautiful, like Legolas.  Professor Snape, bitter in his heart because of unrequited love, oscillates in seeming a villain or a hero, again and again, and generally is hated by Harry and his friends. But Snape summons the courage to kill Dumbledore, his only friend, out of love and loyalty for Dumbledore and he ultimately brings Harry to his duty, dying himself in defense of Harry whom he also hates.  Harry learns, as he matures, that he has a piece of the evil Voldemort within himself accounting for his own evil intentions and, ironically, sets out on a quest to murder Voldemort by destroying all the things that contain the guarantees of Voldemort’s life.  Harry’s penultimate lesson is that he himself has to die in order for Voldemort to be killed.  This is not like Gandalf’s or Aslan’s sacrifice where their own virtues cheat death. Harry’s death is because of the evil in Harry himself.  Harry has to die to his own evil.  Then his ultimate lesson is that he has the choice to remain out of the world as a pure spirit or to re-enter and finish the combat, which he does.  For Rowling’s version of the Christian mythology, we have to die to the evil within us before we can face the evil powers outside.  And then we have to choose again to face those evils of finite life before we find the proper tensions of finite life and transcendent victory. For Rowling the end of the story is not heaven, not reconciliation, not a new age, but carrying on the next generation which might have to face the same perils at Hogwarts that Harry did when he first went.  As a re-mythologizer, Rowling alone of these four knows that baptism into Christ means than we too must die in order to bear the eternity of resurrection in the midst of daily life.

The liturgy of the Easter Vigil displaces onto the story of Jesus the tenseness of the lives we all live, balancing the heaviness of our lives considered only historically with the levity of our lives considered eternally within the life of God.  Each moment of our historical lives is lived also in eternity, together with our past and future, together with the companions of our youth and maturity, together with the saints and others, together with a cosmos so vast we barely can imagine it.  Each of our moments bears eternity and so we always live in resurrection from the adamantine limits of the situation.  But each of our moments also has to be lived on its own account in historical time, with its choices, hopes, frustrations, and pains.  The Easter Vigil calls us to enter into our moments with full participation, engaged to the fullest, vulnerable to suffering and joy.  If we can see ahead to accomplishment and fulfillment, so much the better.  But if all we see is the need to complete an embalming, that is still our place and we can see that as part of eternal life.

A few weeks ago I fell into a diabetic coma and would have died if it weren’t for my wife’s quick action.  Happily I was quickly rebalanced and back at work but for several days the sky was bluer and the colors were brighter than I ever remember, as if I were higher up and further in. Christians shouldn’t need shocks like that.  Day by day we live in tensed historical time, relating to the past, to the future, and to the present circumstances that might be as joyful as the wedding in Cana or as grave as the Saturday after crucifixion.  Having been baptized to death and life with Jesus, we should know that there is more to being in God’s creative life than living with the tenses of past, present, and future.  In every moment we are lifted with those tenses into the eternal life of God in which the living verbs are in the infinitive form.  The tension of this Vigil’s drama confronts us, like waking from a coma, with the shock that living in time is also living in eternity, that the tensed historical time of past, present, and future is also the eternal time of resurrection.  Jesus was mythologized into a story of eternity in time that can be our story.  Because of that, we are resurrection people day by day.

Amen

~Dean Robert Neville

Deliver Us From Evil

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

John 13:31-35

Joan Humphrey grew up on a farm in Kansas.  She was born, the third of four children, to Donna and Jake Humphrey.  The Humphrey farm of 480 acres, near Woodlawn Kansas, raised cattle and crops.  Joan attended a one room school there until the eighth grade.  She was a cheerleader at Sabetha High School.  She also was an officer in her school’s chapter of ‘Future Homemakers of America’.  She graduated second in her class.  A class of 48.  Here is the caption under her yearbook picture:  “keen sense, common sense, no room for nonsense”. *

Joan then attended Wheaton College, because her pastor was a graduate.  Later on, she entered law school at Northwestern University.  Her classmates there teased her about her slow prairie speech.  They also envied her lack of stress over exams.  In law school she met a boy named Michael.  They worked summer jobs on behalf of the poor:  disability benefits, evictions, food stamps.

Joan and Michael were married in 1975.  He wore a white suit.  She wore daisies in her hair, and a white Moroccan caftan.

Joan and Michael then began to raise their own family of four daughters.  Every morning, he brewed coffee.  He pre-heated her cup with boiling water, filled it with coffee, and carried it to the bed where together they could talk about the day to come.

Joan’s life had two paradigms, professional woman and devoted mother.  She cooked dinner every night.  She established a daycare center in the courthouse where she worked.  She packed lunches for four daughters, making sure to use Tropicana orange juice to limit the girls’ sugar intake.  The newspaper quoted Joan as saying, “I wanted my family to be a family that shared their food and the mom could cook like my mom could cook.”*

Joan’s temperament and industry brought her, in the year 2000, to the federal bench.  She became a judge in the US District Court in Chicago.  It was the culmination of a fine career, a position that had eluded her on other occasions.  Then in 2002, one of her rulings angered white supremacists.  One of these was convicted of plotting to have her killed.  They did not succeed.   But on February 28, 2005, Joan’s husband Michael and her mother, both on crutches, were murdered.  They were both shot in the head and chest with .22 caliber bullets.*

Holy Week, every year, brings us to the precipice of a most disturbing question.  At some point, we grow up or wake up enough to ask the question that Joan’s daughter Meg asked her last week.  “Mom, why is the world so evil?” * Holy Week—with its fleeting laud and honor, its temple conflict, its night of betrayal, its day of trial, its hour of tragedy, and its subsequent, lasting silence—brings us right to this matter of evil. Why?  Why Mom?  Why is the world so shot through with evil—sin, death, the threat of meaninglessness?

After 250 of his students died in a plane crash near Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, Chancellor Melvin Eggers brought the question, via a newspaper interview, to his religious leadership at Syracuse University’s Hendricks Chapel.  I will never forget his interview, the pain of it, the grief in it, the troubled angst of it, which never left him over the few remaining years of his life.

After 2500 died on 9/11, that next Friday, hundreds of people filled this sanctuary, without invitation or liturgical preparation.  Here they were, truly hunting for the language and heart with which to assess the same question.  What in the world is wrong with this world?

After 250,000 were lost in December on the day after Christmas, 2004, out of a numbed and fogged stupor, there has gradually emerged a serious question, a question about bearing, perspective, and, ultimately, about faith.  What kind of world is this?  Who is the God who has breathed life into such a place?  “Mom, why is the world so evil?”

The same reckoning can arrive in a far more cotidian fashion.   One middle aged morning in the winter you may wake up to list the smaller showers of estrangement that meet us every day, long before we ever are drenched in the great thunderstorm of evil:

Premature resignation

Partial self-awareness

Indirect criticism

Cold honesty

Inflated responsibility

Excessive enjoyment

Needless worry

Wasted time

Careless haste

Misguided loyalty

Postponed grief

Avoided maturation

Partial planning

Unconscious entitlement

Pointless earning

Self-serving posture

Thankless reception

You meet them every day…

In our time, people of conscience are truly alive, suddenly and earnestly alive, to this question, which is, again, the whole content of Holy Week.  It is a question that, in the main, is a matter of grief, trouble, and loss.  Which is, of course, the whole content of the church’s experience and memory of Holy Week.  It is a matter of deep, abiding grief to face the gone-wrongness in life.  And, while we have tried, in our churches, to feed the hunger in this question, to slake the thirst in this question, to provide compelling responses to this question, to a great degree, across the land, we have failed.  And failure is the whole content of Holy Week.  It is a grief to this preacher that our pulpits, including this one, have thus far failed to meet the grief and loss and especially fear that pervade our time like a mist in London along Aldersgate Street, like an invisible unholy ghost,  just on the edge of our awareness.  Like a dawn that just will not come.

We have not been able robustly and preparedly and piercingly to remember, to call to mind our biblical, Christian, tragic sense of life, when most we have needed it.  To hear Job on the ash heap:  “What is my crime?”; and Second Isaiah: “A man of sorrow, acquainted with grief”; and Jeremiah’s lamentations;  “all the rivers run to the sea”;  and the tears of the David, “all flesh is grass”; to evoke Ecclesiastes, speaking of 9:11, “the race is not always to the swift….but time and chance happen to them all”;  and the affliction of Paul, “persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed”; and best of all Jesus himself,  “if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me”.   You cannot read all of Barbara Brown Taylor on Job the night of 9/11.  It has to be read ahead.  You cannot do all of an STH course on Jeremiah the night after Tsunami.  It has to be read ahead.  You cannot absorb all that Lou Martyn says about Galatians, the afternoon of Lockerbie.  It has to be read earlier.  In wrestling we used to make weight, trying to lose 5 pounds in two hours by jogging in sweatsuits through the school showers.  Bodily life, Christian life, does not easily allow such last minute maneuvers.

This morning, we try again:

Jesus meets us today along this very road of tragedy in life: of evil, grief, loss, estrangement, and failure.  His church, this church, lives still as a community that knows in its bones how to face evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity.  H R Niebuhr warned his generation to suspect the false sense that somehow a “God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross”.   Oddly, it is the starkness of the cross, the coarseness of Jesus’ death, the tremendous sense of loss and failure and grief of Holy Week (so boldly evoked in our youth production last weekend) that is your best gift to a frightened world.  His cross truly names the tragedy of evil.  His cross permanently enfolds that tragedy in the larger goodness of life and the lasting goodness of God.  His cross, especially, of course, in John, radiates a thin measure of hope, that there is life beyond brokenness.  In our passage today this is carried on the word “glory” and the dismissive treatment of resurrection—of Lazarus, the only reason for the quisling gathering of the counterfeit parade.

Remember your baptism and confirmation.

The world is good, the good handiwork of a divine goodness that passes all understanding and endures forever.

Yet, the world is just not right, but somehow off track, wrongheaded, with something ‘loose’ rattling around in side it—the shadow of sin, the specter of evil, the sorrow of death.

We have to face both and to pray for deliverance from the latter to the former.  So we teach our children to say both of these phrases:  Hallowed be thy name…and…Deliver us from evil.

Robert McAfee Brown said so memorably (how I miss his voice):  “Friends, this is God’s world, but it is a crummy world, and we have to live with both realities”.

To Meg’s question “Why?”  I have no completely finished, final answer for you.  But the good news is that you have an answer for me. And if you think I do not see it you are mistaken.  And if you think I do not appreciate or admire it you are mistaken.  And if you think I do not respect it you are mistaken.  You live your answer by choosing the cruciform path of faith.  You meet evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity.  You carry yourselves in belief.  You remember that it is not the passion of Christ that defines the Person of Christ, but the Person that defines the passion.  You remember that it is not the suffering that bears the meaning, but the meaning that bears the suffering…that it is not the cross that carries the love but the love that carries the cross…that it is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses even the tragedy of crucifixion… and that it is not the long sentence of Holy week, with all its phrases, dependent clauses and semi-colons that completes the gospel, but it is the punctuation to come in seven days, the last mark of the week to come in 168 hours, whether it be the exclamation point of Peter, the full stop period of Paul or the question mark of Mary—Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around.  The resurrection follows but not replace the cross, for sure.  But the cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection.  It is Life that has the last word and there is a God to whom we may pray, in the assurance of being heard:  Deliver us from evil…

Maybe that is why Joan Humphrey—you may know her by her married name, Joan Humphrey Lefkow—she like Dorothy Gale of the Kansas farm, she like Billy Graham of Wheaton College, she like Ernest Fremont Tittle of Northwestern University, she like your own mother in kitchen and coffee and packed lunch, answered her daughter’s question (sursum corda!) in faithful witness (hear the Gospel!) to tragedy and goodness and hope.

I confess that I read her statement, weeping, in the middle of an utterly boring Board meeting, and was for several moments unsure of where I was, or whether these few sentences were read from the printed page as human comments, or were resounding in the mind and heart as divine utterance.  Which is this voice?  Human or Divine?  You be the judge.

Joan says to her daughter, and God says to us:

I  am so sad…It is a human tragedy…Honey, most people are good, most people would not think of doing this…Remember the sermon years ago at the Episcopal Church in Evanston, where you girls sang in the choir and I made sandwiches for the homeless once a month…The priest said, ‘Some things are just broken…they’re broken…just broken…They’re broken and you go on from there…Don’t think you can repair them but get up and go on from there’…But whoever did this, I want to look them in the eye and say…How could you?…How could you do that to me and my family?”*

*New York Times, 3/10/05, pps. A1, 20

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Dean of Marsh Chapel

The Liturgy of the Palms – The Liturgy of the Passion

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

Click here to hear the full service.
Mark 14:1 – 15:47

A Meditation on the Palms

Seeing With the Heart: Meditations from Marsh Chapel, 2010

The Dean:   If we believe that life has meaning and purpose

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that the Giver of Life loves us

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that divine love lasts

People:   And we doThe Dean: If we believe that justice, mercy, and humility endure

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that God so loved the world to give God’s only Son

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that Jesus is the transcript in time of God in eternity

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that all God’s children are precious in God’s sight

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe grace and forgiveness are the heart of the universe

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that God has loved us personally

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe in God

People:   And we do

The Dean: Then we shall trust God over the valley of the shadow of death

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust that love is stronger than death

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust the mysterious promise of resurrection

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust the faith of Christ, relying on faith alone

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust the enduring worth of personality

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust that just deeds, merciful words are never vain

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust the Giver of Life to give eternal life

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust the source of love to love eternally

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust that we rest protected in God’s embrace

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust in God

People:   And we shall.

A Meditation on the Passion Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Deliver Us From Evil, 2005

The Dean:   To the question of evil let us live our answer by choosing the cruciform path of faith.

People:   Let us meet evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity.The Dean: Let us carry ourselves in belief.

People:   Let us affirm the faith of Christ which empowers to withstand what we cannot understand.

The Dean:   Let us remember that it is not the passion of Christ that defines the Person of Christ, but the Person that defines the passion.

People: Let us remember that it is not suffering that bears meaning, but a sense of meaning that bears up under suffering.

The Dean: Let us remember that it is not the cross that carries the love but the love that carries the cross.

People:   Let us remember that it is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses even the tragedy of crucifixion.

The Dean: Let us remember and that it is not the long sentence of Holy week, with all its phrases, dependent clauses and semi‐colons that completes the gospel, but it is the punctuation to come in seven days, the last mark of the week to come in 168 hours, whether it be the exclamation point of Peter, the full stop period of Paul or the question mark of Mary—Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around. The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross. The cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life that has the last word and there is a God to whom we may pray, in the assurance of being heard: “Deliver us from evil”

~The Revered Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Dean of Marsh Chapel