Unfinished Grace

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1 John 4: 7-12

Mark 16: 1-8

‘To be mature is build schools in which you will not study, to plant trees under which you will not sit, to grow churches in which you will not worship.’ (Ernest Campbell).

John would agree:  John Dempster.  John Appleseed.  John Wesley.  1 John.  John would agree.

The cataract of Easter, its shattering, thunderous, calamitous, munificent, apocalypse of love, leaves parcels and morsels strewn about the lawn of life.  Our Holy Communion in Eastertide is forever an unfinished grace.  We stumble about, following the Easter kiss of grace (gnadenkusse), the Easter quickening.  We bump into bits and pieces left behind the resurrection tornado.

For one thing, the gospel for this Easter, Mark 16, re-read this morning, ends in mid-flight, end in mid-sentence, its last word a preposition, ‘for’.  A weak case (from the critical moderate viewpoint0 finds a couple of other sources in antiquity, in ancient Greek literature, which end with this dangling preposition.  But the much more muscular view, as usual, is that of the moderate critics, not that of the critical moderates.  The end of the scroll (as often happened to beginnings and endings of these documents) probably was torn and lost.  The Easter gospel is literally (not a word I usually associate with the Bible) unfinished.  Its ending is unending.  For….what?

If you doubt this, let me remind you that all the subsequent editors of Mark tried to fix up the finish.  Beginning with Mark.  There are three different endings to Mark.  The unfinished original, and two finished unoriginals, the shorter and the longer.  They are not improvements, except in a grammatical sense.  Next come Matthew and Luke, writing 20 years after Mark.  They also both replace the unfinished finish, with a finished finish, not original, but, like a nice addition to an old house, appropriate to the space.  The Fourth Gospel enlarged Mark’s sketch (a version may have influenced John), with three other stories (of Mary, of the disciples, and of Thomas).  And of course Paul knows nothing of any of this, so had nothing to add.  Whether or not you want to think about unfinished grace as the metaphorical unfinished symphony of Being is your choice.  The fact stubbornly remains:  Mark 16 ends unfinished, in mid-sentence, ‘they were afraid for…’

Life is open.  Freedom is real.  Easter causes us a little humility about what we think we know.  Unfinished grace cautions us at Easter.  Life is unfolding in unfinished grace.  If, for instance, you have attended a recent lengthy conference or meeting which was by all accounts an unmitigated disaster, and you are tempted to despair, beware.  Grace is afoot, alive, active, and unfinished.  There is more future than you may think in the future.

For another thing, in the aftermath and after glow of Easter, sometimes when we come to our senses we deeply realize unfinished work, unresolved issues, unappreciated love.  Every year, studying the Gospel of John, this hits like a trailer falling out of a tornado.

I am speaking of Nicodemus.  We didn’t hear about him this year, for he is only in John.  You remember his awkward appearance at night in John 3.  He disappears, but reappears at the very end, John 19:29, and helps Joseph of Arimethea to bury Jesus’ body.  ‘Nicodemus, who first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes’.  So poignant, this, so true to life, so accurate about us.  We don’t know what we have got until it is gone.  At last—too late but not too late—Nicodemus responds in love to the Christ who loved him to death.  He shows up at the burial.

Some returning faithful souls from Tampa Florida may this month suddenly realize what has been lost in the Methodist church.  You don’t what you’ve got until its gone.  For 200 years in various forms our church supported a security of appointment, a modest kind of connectional tenure.  In this practice was located the basis for the covenant of the clergy in conference.  In this practice was located the functional basis for itinerancy, in appointment and apportionment.  In this practice was located the final protection of the freedom of the pulpit from harm and muffling by Episcopal leaders for whom such freedom is uncomfortable.   I

In short, the church said to those entering ministry: ‘you study for four years in college, three years in seminary, work for three years under supervision, and agree to go anywhere you are sent at the appointment of the Bishop, along with your family by the way, and live in a parsonage and earn $40,000 a year.  We will at least guarantee you a place to preach, however modest that may be.  But now, the demands on the young clergy are the same, but the responsible balance, the fair deal from an earlier day is gone.  All the weight is on one end of the teeter totter.  Beware of mendacious and predatory Bishops:  power corrupts, and absolute power, now in view, corrupts absolutely.  It is the equivalent of eliminating tenure on the Charles River campus in one vote, with no full debate.

Maybe the judicial council will rule this too out of order.  You don’t know what you have got until it is gone.

Nicodemus doesn’t know what he has until it is gone.  Still, there is a way—100 pounds of treasure way—for Nicodemus to find faith.  Part of the joy of Easter is that this spiritual street theater involves audience participation, a play unfinished until you, like Nicodemus, step upon stage, take your cues, memorize and deliver your lines.  Unfinished grace includes us—if we will allow it—at Easter.

Yet another thing:  as bread and wine await.  1,000 of us worshipped here in the triduum—an explosion.  Odd, I looked up at Frances Willard, Easter day.  She is found standing perpetually alongside Abraham Lincoln, here in our western stained glass.  To finish Marsh Chapel, sixty years ago, Daniel Marsh had to decide on one final figure, for the last stained glass window.  The choice became a cause célèbre, with letters and advice flying fast and furious.  In a day when people felt strongly about Connick stained glass windows.  Who should it be?

Marsh finally chose Frances Willard, the female force behind prohibition.  Interesting.  A quintessential Methodist choice, in one sense, and a lingering, awkward physical presence on a secular, urban, large, cold, Northern, anything but temperate let alone abstinent, campus.

Here is what President Marsh wrote about Frances Willard:

‘I dare to prophesy that as the years go by and the history of the New World comes to be read…the name of Frances Willard will stand by the side of Lincoln’ (Lady Somerset of England).  Dean of Women at Northwestern…Her upbringing, her religious convictions, her natural bent for reform…put her in the temperance movement…President of the WTCU…A statue of her stands in the rotunda of the Capitol…It is a monument to a beautiful life. (Charm of the Chapel, 182)

Willard said: ‘temperance is moderation in the things that are good and abstinence from things that are foul’; ‘I will not waste my life in friction when it could be turned into momentum’;  ‘the struggle of the soul is toward expression’ She was born near Rochester (Churchville).  She gave 400 speeches a year in the company of her longtime companion, Anna Adams Gordon: ‘there is no village that has not its examples of ‘two hearts in counsel’ both of which are feminine’.  For Willard, temperance was primarily a movement at advancing the cause of suffrage (to my mind anyway), ‘ Yet eighty years after the experience and failure of prohibition (with thanks for Ken Burns’ recent portrayal) Francis Willard is still here, and we still have unfinished work, unfinished imaginative labor to do regarding alcohol.   I am not in favor of prohibition and not a t-totaller, although I grew up in a dry home.  But as a Dad, granddad, pastor, chaplain, Dean and minister, if the choice is between prohibition and sexual exploitation, I take prohibition in a New York minute.  Our work on college campuses regarding alcohol is unfinished.

I will linger with Willard a brief moment longer.  Notice her way of living.  She lived all her life with her life long partner.  One day, our denomination will honor the emerging Frances Willards in our midst, the 10% of those 8 and 9 year old kids who know that somehow they are just a little different from the majority, who know they have a God given and different orientation.  We will bring them to Marsh Chapel and introduce them to one of their forebears, Frances Willard, a feminist, suffragette, international leader, dean, temperance advocate, pioneer, and very probably a gay woman of the 19th century.   She didn’t see her main goal, voting rights for women, in her lifetime.  That happened twenty years after she died.  But it happened.  If you are limping home from a General Conference that was an unmitigated disaster, take a little heart from those who labored for causes that came to fruition only long after they had died.  Just so, unfinished grace challenges us at Easter.  Grace challenges us to remember that real change takes time, but it will come.  It is coming.  It is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave…

‘To be mature is build schools in which you will not study, to plant trees under which you will not sit, to grow churches in which you will not worship.’

John would agree:  John Dempster.  John Appleseed.  John Wesley.  1 John.  John would agree.

Beloved let us love one another, for love is from God and one who loves is born of God and knows God.  He who does not love does not know God for God is love.  In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.  Beloved if God so loved us we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God;  if we love one another God’s love abides in us and is perfected in us.

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

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