Archive for June, 2012

Apocalypse Then: The Apocalypse of God

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

Galatians 3: 23

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Something Unearthly and Final

1.  Later in the summer evenings, seated in the dark natural womb of our hedged backyard, you can hear a strange cacophonous chorus.  A small Toyota drives past, its muffler nearly superannuated.  There are crickets, humming from nearby, yet from nowhere.   A prop jet cruises overhead, spraying its round steady roar.  Then there is the neighbor’s radio, and a couple who murmur and mutter as they stroll out front.  Somewhere a screen door bangs shut.  And yet another car, stereo pounding. But then, lovely and strange it comes, and as from a foreign shore or the far bank of the river Styx, one faintly overhears—how unspeakably sweet—the long, low mellifluous whistle of an unseen train.  A train whistle at dusk:  is there not something unearthly and final in such a sound?

 

2.  Every dawn breaks differently from the last, as the older and sicker and more lonely among us can see, better than others.  Some may watch from the dawn for spiritual reasons.  Most who see it daily, one suspects, see it through the lenses of sheer loneliness, or throbbing and sleep stealing pain, or nightmarish angst.  You are awake, again.  And there again is the tempting, promissory light of yet another day.  See it break!  A luminous haze.  Or a streak of dull yellow.  Or even a sky now confederate gray, now federal blue, now…orange! and crimson! and rose! and all manner of Fire.  The color of dawn:  is there not something unearthly and final in such a sight?

 

3.  To touch.  To touch and to speak and to speak with touch and to touch with speech.  For four years you have been in uniform and at last you lie down again beside the mother of your children.  Such a touch.  Or maybe you were crippled, nearly killed, in an atrocious accident and slept, years, downstairs in a makeshift hospital bunk until, at last, you lie down again against the husky shoulder of husband become nurse become husband again.  Such a touch.  Or, maybe, you are estranged for years when Grace reunites you two and again you rub cheek to cheek.  Such a touch.  The touch of human love and desire:  is there not something unearthly and final in such a feeling?

 

4.  The footrace is overlong and you are past the wall, the wall of endurance.  You have hit the wall.  Now, only out of dumb habit do your legs move, still, forward and forward.  Another hill, another mile.  You ache and you hurt, but mostly you thirst with an arid dusty mouth and cracked lips.  Now!  Someone has thrust a cup of cold, clear water to you.  You lift it and you drink.  The force of water upon thirst:  is there not something unearthly and final in such a taste as this?

 

5.  There is a scent, an aroma that  your friend wears, partly natural, partly cosmetic, partly a strange mixture.  You can sense it in his sweater, in her office, in his car, in her closeness, in his intimacy.  It has no name.  But it is a fragrance which outlives her, or him, if only for a few weeks or months.  Of all things, it makes cleaning the room unbearably and sweetly awful and hard.  This is a fragrance to end every other.  Such a scent:  is there not something unearthly and final about such a fragrance?

 

Come with me for just a moment this morning out to the very edge of life.

 

For the human senses all have their own horizons, their own outer limits, their own twilight zones:  sound, sight, touch, taste, scent.  They all have their zenith, nadir, and apex—their horizon.  Each, bittersweet, is a foretaste, a harbinger and a chilling reminder of the brute limits of our life, even—no especially—at its very very best.  They take you out to the limit.  To the end of the pier.  To the crest of the hill.  To the edge of the cliff.  To the brink of…eternity.

 

Come with me for just a moment this morning out to the very edge of life.

 

 

The Apocalypse of God

 

Where human experience ends, God begins.  Like a tangent touching a circle.  On the far side of that train whistle and that orange dawn and that erotic touch and that slaking taste and that heavenly scent—there, God.

 

A preacher some years ago spoke in a rowdy college auditorium.  Posters lined the walls.  One read, “God is other people”.  The preacher began:  “I have come to put in the comma.”  And he walked to the wall poster and penned in a comma:  “God is Other, people”.

 

God is Other.

 

When Paul spoke to the Galatians, he preached the revelation of God.  The greek word is apocalypse.  The apocalypse of God.  The God beyond god.

 

This is why, in the first instance, the earliest Christians worshipped Jesus’ death and not his life.  For in the cross of Christ comes God’s final, martial apocalypse.

 

God’s last word.

 

 

In Jesus Christ, and Him crucified, in this marauding and final act—the revelation, the apocalypse of God—God speaks and acts.  And we today, east and west, may be with appreciation of millenium and holy war viscerally closer to the New Testament than almost any other generation, save that of Jesus and Paul and John.

 

Behold a mystery, out at the very edge of life.  The apocalypse of God finishes all millenial fear and all jihadic anger.

 

The apocalypse of God:

 

Permeates

Invades

Steps in

Attacks

Transforms

Eclipses

Seizes

Graces

 

The apocalypse of God:

 

Is not freedom of the will but freeing of the will.

Declares war on this territory of tyranny

Repairs, rebuilds, replaces…all else.

 

And there is no religious addition, no postscript to the redemptive, apocalyptic act of God in Christ.

 

This is why St Paul can be so outrageously, shockingly bold to say—it is a baptismal formula—that in Christ there is no longer any difference based on religion (Jew\Greek), or on economics (Slave\Free) or on sex (Male\Female).  He says it with the finality of the millenium and with the ferocity of Holy War.

 

The Apocalypse of God invades our twilight world.  Even in church—the last refuge of a scoundrel.

 

See, hear, taste, touch, smell it.

 

First, this church opens its doors every day to religious and unreligious, alike.  The apocalypse of God is, simply, the end of religion—the end of distinction based on tradition alone, or doctrine alone, or tribe alone or habit alone.

 

Second, every year we pool our money in community.  It is an uncanny event, to collect and disburse a million dollars and more, from each according to his ability and to each according to his need.  The apocalypse of God is, simply, the end of money—the end of distinction based on wealth alone, or position alone, or inheritance alone, or success alone.

 

Third, this month we begin to hear again the event of the preached Word.  The apocalypse of God is, simply, the end of sex—the end of distinction based on body alone, or gender alone, or orientation alone, or physique alone, or appearance alone.

 

Oh, I know.  You can so easily miss the apocalypse, since it appears in a mere open door, a mere collection plate, a mere soprano voice.  You can miss it, for it lies over the edge of our experience, and touches us as if from nowhere, on a cross.

 

I dare you to watch for what is real.  The erasure of religion, the toppling of money, the disappearance of sex.  All killed.  All defeated in God’s millenial jihad.

 

Without religion to separate us, without money to enslave us, without sex to divide us, what will become of us?

 

Why…we will become a beachhead in the invasion of God’s new creation.  Real Millenium.  Real Jihad.

 

Here: a New Creation.

Here: a community that listens.

Here: a gathering of mutual concern.

Here: people of glad heart.

Here: people of happy passion.

Here: not I must I shall, but I may I can

Here: love divine, all loves excelling….

 

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

Apocalypse Then: Consolation Literature

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

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Mark 13:1-8

1. Preface:  Andrew Young on Faith and Religion

 

A few years ago Boston University was graced by the voice and presence of Andrew Young—activist, pastor, theologian, congressman, ambassador, mayor and close confidant of Martin Luther King.  One pastor said:  “He is one of our ‘wise men’”.   We were honored to be at breakfast with him, across a round table in the Howard Thurman center, guests too of the office of the Dean of Students.  BU students, Ken Elmore, and Kathryn Kennedy provided the hospitality.

 

For those of a certain generation—those of us now with bifocals, aging joints, haphazard memory, thinning hair—Andrew Young is a wise man and an icon too. We are aware, too, that for ranges of humanity in other generations, his name is slipping from its household word quality into more of a vintage mode.  C’est dommage.

 

Mr. Young answered several questions.  One:  “What should the relationship be of politics and religion?”  You might be surprised at his answer.  It recalls Paul in the 15th chapter of Romans, extolling the virtue of those, his enemies, who nonetheless were preaching Christ.  There is wisdom in magnanimity, and there is magnanimity in wisdom…

 

Every great revolution in the history of this country was supported by a religious revival or enthusiasm—the Revolutionary war, the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement…No, I do not agree with Pat Robertson and those folks, but I also recognize that they are doing some good in the world…they are sending missionaries and feeding the hungry and other good things.  Faith and politics invariably go together.

 

2. American Eschatology:  21st Century Consolation Literature

 

It is a particular, peculiar, and potent intersection of the two which concerns us this morning.  In our time, religion and politics have intersected at an unusual point, that of the doctrine of the last things, of eschatology, or the doctrine of the Christian hope.  As we have propounded for six years from this pulpit, on a reliable hope hangs our future.  But to approach such a globe saving, history opening hope—I speak here of salvation in the little and in the large—we shall need to clear the ground of unreliable hope.  The remaining historic churches (orthodox, catholic and protestant) have done a poor job in contesting the region of hope.   We have not steadily and repeatedly reminded both church and culture about what, historically, and so theologically, we may understand regarding biblical teachings about hope.  We have not done our job, to translate tradition into insight for effective living.  To some degree we have turned aside from the apocalyptic language and imagery of the New Testament, in turn embarrassed, frightened, offended or simply baffled by the ancient hope, like that in Mark 13, read some moments ago.

 

And what has become of the void of interpretation we have left behind?  It has become filled by material about being ‘left behind’!  Of all the dangerous literalisms which can infect the pseudo-interpretation of scripture, none has become more damaging than the literal, non-historical, rendering of apocalyptic material in the New Testament.

 

A summer or two ago, one of our Marsh Chapel members came by the office.  He told me about his workmates who were reading popular apocalyptic material, from The Late Great Planet Earth to Left Behind.  “Can you do something to address this part of Christianity for the rest of us?”  His question is the basis for our national summer preaching series this year, 2012.  Over ten weeks we shall do our best, with a little help from our friends at Boston University, to respond.  I thank in advance the Dr Knust, Dr Walters, Dr Jacobson and Br Whitney for their support in the preaching of the gospel on the theme, ‘Apocalypse Then’.

 

This summer we are excited to present sermons, in June, July and August, which intend to provide reasoned, historical and theological reflection on some of the apocalyptic passages and themes in the New Testament. Our hope is to provide publicly accessible yet theologically responsible perspectives on these texts, in contrast to some other current and popular forms of interpretation. We are privileged to present preachers from the Boston University School of Theology, each of whom brings particular interest and expertise in this area.

 

For many people living culturally outside the range of religious reality that encourages literal apocalyptic language, the broad reading and public enjoyment of such literature can seem unbelievable.  How did 20 million homes accommodate copies of the fictional accounts of rapture, in the Left Behind series alone?  How did this series become the primary lens through which, for many, the Christian hope is seen?  Kevin Phillips recent work, American Theocracy, in his two chapters, Radicalized Religion, and Defeat and Resurrection, put a full spot light upon this phenomenon, including its connections to political agendas.  According to Phillips, 55% of all Americans believe the Bible is literally true and  59% of all Christians expect the events of the Book of Revelation to occur (p 102).  When combined with the sort of covenantal ‘exceptionalism’ and ‘righteous remnant’ perspective that often accompanies such a reading of the Scripture—found in Ireland, South Africa and the American South at crucial junctures—the influence of literal apocalypticism has become significant.  ‘Lost Cause’ religion becomes the seedbed for left behind theology (p110ff).

 

Further, these affirmations and perspectives are often tinged with a particular kind of understanding of God’s will.  A few years ago, during the outing of  a bright, effective large church pastor who homiletically condemned but also apparently practiced homosexuality, several evangelical commentators reflected on ‘God’s timing’ in bringing forth this ‘revelation’ about Pastor Haggard.  ‘God just decided that it was time to bring this to people’s attention’ is a comment typical of this position.

 

Timing is everything , but is everything God’s timing?

 

On this (mistaken) view, God is free, but we are not.  God is free to be, but humans are slaves of providence.  God is making the choices about when outings occur, not actual humans.  At crucial points, there is, on this worldview, a hearty willingness to let go of human freedom, human responsibility, and human wisdom gained through hard experience, and to let God take the blame.

 

Which, of course, is the sad heart of literal apocalyptic.  In apocalyptic, the future is not open, not evolving, not influenced by the myriad choices of individuals and groups–and so not my responsibility.  I let that go.  No, in apocalyptic, the future is assured by God, controlled by God, chosen by God and so is God’s sole responsibility.  So, in letting go, I let God be, well, God.   It is a temporarily consoling perspective for those who crave such fleeting consolation.   It is a darkly fascinating rendering of the slogan, let go and let God.

 

But it is not true.

 

Not to our reason, not to our experience, not to our tradition, and finally, in careful interpretation, not to our Scripture either.

 

3. Ancient Christian Apocalyptic Eschatology:  1st Century Consolation Literature

 

On the basis of sound biblical interpretation, it is time to leave behind ‘left behind’ thought.

 

Our gospel lesson, Mark 13 was probably written in or near the year 70, in the shadow of that century’s judeo-christian version of 9/11, the final destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.  Our chapter today assumes that the reader—‘let the reader understand’ (v14) will intuit the imagery of buildings and stones.  More, the later Gospels are written in the ever lengthening shadow of a truth hard to swallow, at least for the early church.  The end was not in fact in sight.

 

Jesus, Paul, the earliest church and most of the New Testament carry the common expectation that within days or years, but soon, the apocalyptic end of the world will occur.  All were mistaken.  Even 2 Peter, who changes the math, and makes a day equal to 1000 years, has grudgingly to wrestle with the delay, the postponement, of the first Christians’ fervent hope.  Recite 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 several times and you will get a sense of what this apocalyptic hope entailed.  It is early Christian mythology.  As with all myth, it carries meaning, including meaning for us.  But as a world-view, as a view of history, it is wrong.

 

It did not happen.

 

What Jesus predicted, and Paul expected, and Mark awaited—did not happen.  The end did not come.  And centuries of further sparkles of expectation, from the Montanists, to the Medieval mystics, to the Millerites of upstate New York, to the Jonestown community of 1978, to the Y2K enthusiasts of just a few years ago, did not make it so.  December 12 2012 will also come and go with the sun rising and setting the next day. This biblical apocalyptic may be mythologically meaningful, but it is chronologically corroded.

 

Further, the language and imagery of the New Testament are apocalyptic through and through.  Apocalyptic is the mother tongue of Christian theology, especially of Christian hope.  So our beloved Bible must be interpreted anew, in a non-mythological way.

 

Fortunately, the New Testament itself begins to do so.  Some of that reassessment is beginning in our passage this morning—‘the end is not yet, this is but the beginning’.  Some of the ethical application and communal reinterpretation of this will come in a few verses:  you have no idea if or when the end will come so, in scout fashion, be prepared.  But most of the courageous imagination in this regard is found in the Gospel of John, aided somewhat by the later Paul.

 

The fictional, pseudo-biblical, consolation literature of our 21st century apocalyptic literalism needs to be left behind.  It is not true:  not to the Bible, not to the church, not to the mind, not to your experience.  Humans may make of this earth the scenery of the new novel, The Road.  We pray, pray it may not be so.  But even if it were to occur—the end is not yet.  You cannot escape your responsibility for the future of planet earth by hiding behind the skirts of an unfounded, ultimately unbiblical apocalypticism.  It will not do, in this sense, to let go and let God.

 

We are not free to avoid our responsibility to the environment, with the excuse that the Lord may return in a generation or two anyway, and who needs gasoline in the rapture?

 

We are not free to avoid our responsibility to seek a common global peace, cognizant of the hard won insights of pacifism and just war theory both, on the bet that time is running out for the late great planet earth.

 

We are not free to construe current events in the Middle East on the templates of colorful but unhistorical apocalyptic myths, for the consoling succor of somehow thinking that God handles the Middle East any differently than Asia or the Alaska.

 

We are not free to project our anxieties about the dilemmas of the current age—an age by the way that was supposed to have seen ‘the end of history’!—out onto a far-off falsehood, like the raptures of fancy, fiction or facsimile—in order to avoid what we of course have to do in every other sphere of life:  negotiate, compromise, discuss, trade, and muddle through.

 

Most especially—places like Marsh Chapel with a rich heritage of hope must also expect of ourselves a rich offering to the future that comports with our inheritance, to whom much is given, from him much is expected—we are not free to neglect a common hope.

 

Here is our freedom.  Pray daily for the hope of the world.  Think creatively about the hope of the world.  Act specifically, week by week, in communion with a reliable hope.  The future is up to you.

 

And for goodness sake, leave behind ‘left behind’.

 

 

4. Coda:  Andrew Young’s Worldview

 

We could see at breakfast that Andrew Young had aged.  He walked more slowly.  His skin is weathered.  He carried some more weight.

 

But he is a wise man, our wise man.  And he lives in hope.

 

Asked about his education, he recalled a single informal study group, led by Professor Bill Bradley of Hartford Theological Seminary.  The students gathered for hours of conversation, encouraged by their teacher.  “That group gave me hope.  They gave me my worldview.  The worldview I have to this day.  It is a worldview centered in Christ”.

 

Young’s worldview owes something to Reinhold Niebuhr, with whom we close:

 

“Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.”

 

~Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Dean of Marsh Chapel

Water Thicker Than Blood

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

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Though I have almost no nautical knowledge or understanding of shipbuilding, one of my favorite museum exhibits has always been the collection of maritime paintings at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. These are masterfully executed renderings of eighteenth and nineteenth-century ships from all across New England. Their aesthetic, which is captivating to me, combines strength and power with delicacy of line and grace of movement. However, while the paintings themselves are unbelievably detailed, maritime paintings as a genre fall into a very limited number of categories: you have ships in a calm harbor; ships in a storm; whaling ships in pursuit; ships in battle; ships in battle in a storm; and, the tragic ne plus ultra, the shipwreck. Despite the restricted subject matter, I think part of my fascination with these paintings, beyond the antiquarian aspect, has to do with what you might call their moral message: even the pinnacle expressions of human craftsmanship and ingenuity are no match for either the elements, or human nature; for wind and water or war.

Wind and water have always been used as metaphors for the spiritual realm. Right in Genesis 1, the Spirit moves over the waters, ruffling the abyss, churning it up as God began the work of Creation. In the Exodus, the Lord sends a driving east wind to part the Red Sea and let the Israelites walk across on dry land. Jesus, who in his teaching used the metaphor of the Holy Spirit as wind, walks across the raging sea to the terrified disciples, and calms the storm, demonstrating his command of the natural and the supernatural world.

Wind and water: we can see outlines, direction, response; we can feel the pressure drop, we can smell the rain on the air before it falls, but the forces that cause this are invisible, and out of our control.

And so it is with the Holy Spirit, which two Sundays ago we celebrated on Pentecost. We feel the Spirit and see its effects; it is Presence, but not a Presence that can be pinned down. The Holy Spirit is the wildcard of the Trinity. The Spirit itself does not speak; it only speaks through.

The Holy Spirit is the opposite of every broad human preference: where we want order, predictability, control, tangibility, and hierarchy, the Holy Spirit is unbound, unpredictable, out of control, immaterial, and, to use Biblical language, “no respecter of persons.” Especially important persons!

In other words, the Holy Spirit is rarely good news for the status quo.

In today’s scripture readings, physical reality, the facts of this world, its established structures and relationships, “real life” as it is often called, is pitted against spiritual reality, the immaterial, the hidden but strongly felt presence of God manifest, the great mystery of our existence.

The Israelites, in the lesson from the Old Testament, want a king. The age of rule by the judges and prophets is coming to an end. The days of the Exodus, and of wandering in the wilderness, of being led by a pillar of cloud and fire, are long gone. The Spirit of the Lord has rested on various prophets and judges, speaking through them. When Israel has followed the Torah, the Law, it has prospered; when it has not, it has faced disaster.

But now the great prophet Samuel is old, his sons are corrupt, and Israel is tired of this system. “Appoint for us a king to govern us, like other nations.” We just want to be like everybody else, the chosen people say, sounding a bit like junior high school students. We want what everyone else has! Why do we have to be different? (pause) Why can’t we have a king that we can see and touch, who can speak to us directly, not from a mountain or fiery cloud or in thunder, not from behind the curtain of the Temple. We want someone accessible. We want someone who will go out ahead of us and fight our battles. This is yet another dig at Yahweh. Hasn’t he been fighting for them? What about the walls of Jericho? What about entering the promised land of Canaan? But they want someone in a crown and a shiny suit of armor, not a hidden force from above.

Now at this point Samuel could have said, “Okay, but how about a constitutional democracy?” But he doesn’t. He consults with the Lord, who tells Samuel that they are really rejecting the Lord as king, and not Samuel. The Lord tells Samuel to “give the people what they want,” but to warn them about what life under a king will really be like.

By forgoing the spiritual leadership of the Lord as king of Israel, the people will be subjected to economic oppression. Samuel’s sons may be taking bribes and hogging the sacrificial meat, but that is nothing compared to what a king will take: their sons and daughters, their labor, their harvest, their livestock. Samuel tells the people “You shall be his slaves.” You would think that, after Egypt, this would maybe give them pause; but it does not.

So Samuel anoints Saul to be king over Israel. Saul’s main qualifications for kingship, we learn in 1 Samuel, are that he comes from a wealthy family, he is incredibly handsome, and he is much taller than anyone else in Israel. He definitely has the ancient equivalent of “presidential hair.” In other words, he is everything they want. And he is an utter failure, who will be replaced by David, of Goliath and slingshot fame. And so the nation of Israel begins their long and difficult relationship with monarchy, which will end in exile and the destruction of the Temple, the biblical version of the maritime shipwreck painting.

The Israelites’ impulse—to prefer the physical, visible and tangible to the spiritual—is a characteristic of human nature. At some point or another, we have all tried to fix spiritual problems, or, if you like, emotional or psychological ones, with physical solutions. We want a quick, clean and tangible fix. We prefer to deal above the surface only.

We are unhappy in our relationship or in our job, so we buy lots of things we don’t need and fill up our houses with stuff. Or we decide that if we were ten or fifteen pounds lighter, we would feel much differently about our lives. Or that we need to renovate or redecorate, again. We want visible solutions, even if they are not the right solutions for what ails us.

We do this as individuals, and we do it as communities as well. I’ve been a member of several different faith communities over the years, and I’m always amazed at the lengths church vestries or boards will go to reframe any problem in terms of a physical solution. I think the best example of this was when I was asked, along with several other people from churches in the western suburbs, to work with the remaining members of a tiny, tiny congregation that was finally ready, probably a decade too late, to face its own serious decline and think about its future. There were only about ten people at Sunday worship; they could no longer afford a clergyperson. And so a group of us gathered with them to talk about options; if they should try one last time to grow, or simply to close and end their ministry in that place.

They had recently asked a roofer to look at the church roof, and the roofer had said that it would need to be replaced in about a year. For many other members of the committee, that roof became a big topic of discussion at every meeting. How would we pay to fix the roof. Should we wait the year or try to do it now. Should we take out a loan to fix the roof. And on and on. This roof got lots of attention, sitting atop an almost completely empty church!

Now, I am a person not generally prone to thoughts of arson. But I did catch myself thinking . . . once or twice . . . how convenient it would be if, for some reason, this dilapidated old millstone of a church building would just—you know—disappear, go up in smoke, collapse, what have you—at night when no one was there . . . and then we could get on with the real work that we were called together to do: to decide if this congregation had a future. (I didn’t give in to these thoughts, by the way, and the church building still stands: as condominiums.)

As followers of Christ, we always want to be aware of the temptation to solve our problems with concrete, tidy solutions that completely bypass the spiritual realm, and thus avoid the will of God, and the examination of our souls. The spiritual solution to whatever problem we are dealing with is often time-consuming, messy, and full of vulnerability on our part. Because it involves faith and trust in God, whom we can’t see. It’s much easier, as individuals, families, or faith communities, to do our own version of fixing the roof, distracting ourselves with something that is tangible, but immaterial to our problem. Or, worse: our own version of anointing a king, taking our trust away from our very present but hidden Lord, and placing it in someone or something of this world. The Bible’s term for that is “idolatry.”

But the Holy Spirit, always calling to us, always reaching out to us, wants more for us than superficial solutions: the Holy Spirit wants wholeness and abundant life for us. And this is only possible through deep grappling with what is really wrong under the surface, not with what is easy to fix.

Jesus, in his earthly ministry, was always calling on those who followed him to pay attention to the hidden but present things of God, to the way that the Kingdom of God was trying to unfold in this world. And so he held the Spirit of God, and spiritual relationships, above human institutions and natural or biological relationships.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus, still at the beginning of his ministry, has been traveling around, healing people, casting out demons and speaking in strange parables. He decides to return home for a while. But when he gets to Nazareth, the scripture says that “when his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”

Upon hearing that his mother and brothers and sisters are outside asking for him, Jesus says, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus denies his biological family, his “family of origin,” we might say, in favor of the spiritual community constituted by those following God’s commandments.

This moment is completely consistent with Jesus’ teaching elsewhere. Let’s review, for a minute, what we might call Jesus’ family values.

A man who wants to follow Jesus says, “Teacher, first let me bury my father, and then I will follow.” Jesus replies, “Let the dead bury the dead.”

Another time, a woman in the crowd calls out to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you!” Jesus answers, “Blessed are they who hear the word of God and do it.” And even more challenging, in Matthew 10: “I come not to bring peace but the sword . . . and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.”

Friends, these are Jesus’ family values. Not very traditional, are they. Difficult to accept. The Spirit of God has more claim on individuals than their families. This, frankly, is a radical notion even now, let alone in the first century.

A little aside here, about Mary. Jesus, as we heard, rejects the notion that his mother is to be honored simply for the fact that she is his mother. Instead, Mary is held in the church’s memory because of her faith, and her assent to God’s will for her. As Mary’s cousin Elizabeth says to her in the Gospel of Luke, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” [Luke 1:45] It is Mary’s belief, not her biology, that makes her blessed. And in this, we are actually able to imitate her.

Jesus didn’t go much easier on other physical identity markers, such as tribe, nationality, and class. All of this was secondary to life lived in obedience to God’s will.

Women and slaves held leadership positions in the earliest house churches founded by followers of Jesus. This was unheard of among the Greek mystery religions that competed with Christianity for converts, and it was one of the reasons why the young church grew so rapidly.

In God and in Christ, we are not limited by our earthly identity markers, by our gender or sexual orientation, by our families, our race or ethnicity, by the various tribes to which we belong, professional, educational or class-based. The Apostle Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

This does not mean that these things become invisible or insignificant. It means that they are not the sum of all we are in God. In Christian community, we are able to transcend the restrictions placed upon us by the circumstances of our lives.

Jesus’ family came to restrain him. Many of us come from wonderful families, and many of us come from less wonderful families. Probably all of us have at one time or another felt restrained by our families in some way: by their expectations of us, or their vision of who we are meant to be, or who we are meant to be with, or not be with. Restricted by their ideas of the limits of what we can accomplish, or conversely, by their ideas of the unlimited things we could accomplish, if only we were trying harder!

Jesus reminds us that ultimately, we are accountable to God alone. We can form relationships in our faith communities that support us in ways that our families, or the members of our various secular “tribes,” cannot. Each of us has to learn to look for the movement of the Spirit working in our lives and in the world around us, and we need to learn how to respond to that same Spirit to bring about God’s kingdom. This is why we need our spiritual brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers. This is why we need to put our trust in God, so hidden and yet so very present, rather than in all the shiny distractions vying for our fragmented attention.

Paul says to us in Corinthians, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”

How much attention are we giving to our inner nature? Our physical homes are full of stuff; how much furniture is in our spiritual homes? In whom are we putting our trust? From whom are we getting our support?

One of the things I love the most about the glorious paintings of ships in the Peabody Essex Museum is the way that the water is rendered. The light reflecting off it, the exquisite details of the individual ripples and waves. The ships are magnificent, but the vast ocean itself is even more so.

Our Christian lives are undergirded by the waters of baptism. Through our baptism we received new life, regeneration from sin, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promises we made in baptism, or that were made on our behalf, form the foundation of our faith.

Our baptism may have taken place years and years ago, but we can always float in our baptismal waters. On that day, the germ of our faith, or the faith of our sponsors, joined with God’s infinite and vast faith in us to create an indissoluble bond that will always sustain us. This bond will remain when all else, even our physical bodies, has passed away. So, finally, the spiritual life is real life, and it is only in the Spirit that we become truly alive. In God’s name, Amen.

 

~The Rev. Regina Walton

Curate, Parish of the Good Shepherd (Episcopal), Waban, MA

www.goodshepherdwaban.org


Sanctifying Grace

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Three weeks ago, Katie Matthews was awake at 2am.  Her good friend, she learned hours earlier, had died in New Zealand, one of three Boston University students lost in a car accident.  Katie wondered what to do.  She could hardly believe Austin was dead.

Katie was about to graduate: an education major, a future teacher, a native of Albany NY, a parishioner at BU Marsh Chapel, a leader, a person of faith.  She felt something needed doing.  Could she do something?

Katie thought maybe 20 or 30 of her closest friends could get together on the plaza of Marsh Chapel, Boston University, a space centered on the monument to Martin Luther King, Jr., to honor her friend. The Chapel website has a page about vigils.  She made some notes.  She froze for a moment.  Could she carry this off?  She began to reach out on Facebook in the wee hours of the morning.  Could she do something?  She decided she would try to do something. One of the chaplains at BU saw her positing and pledged support.

At 10am the next morning, unbeknownst to Katie, 20 BU administrators met to consider the dreadful tragedy of 3 deaths a half a world away, and just a week before Commencement.  They began to plan for various responses. Could we do something, they wondered?  The chaplain reported that a student group was planning a vigil that night at 8pm.  Would they like some help?

By 8pm not 20 but 300 students, faculty, and staff were gathered with candles on Marsh Plaza.  The President spoke.  The Provost spoke.  The Dean of the Chapel spoke.   Students spoke.  Live streaming carried the moment around the globe, especially arranged for those other students studying in so many places around the world. And for their parents. Katie spoke too. ‘I knew I had to do something’ she said.  Here are some other things said at the vigil:

Tonight we are One BU in mourning.

We lift the names of those who died:  Austin, Roch, Daniela.

May we help one another find our way to some solace.

Our hearts go out to their parents and families.

We want to face loss with love, grief with grace, disappointment with honesty, and death with dignity.

May we find the power and faith to withstand what we cannot understand.

Standing beside the monument to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., let us remember him not only as a prophetic national leader, but also as a wise and caring pastor, who said in a similar time of tragedy and loss. ‘when it gets dark enough you can see the stars’.

Against a dark backdrop, brightness stands out. The brightness of friendship, relationship, youth, hope, dreams, faith, and love…

It is important to speak.  But as the dusk settled in the Cradle of Liberty, Boston MA, and as the stars came out in the dark, and as the candles flickered in the gentle breeze, speech gave way to presence.  Speech is important.  Presence is more important. The vigil lasted 40 minutes, the gathering around candles lasted 2 more hours.  Stories. Hugs. Tears. Hugs. Stories. Will somebody light my candle?… I wish we had Southern California weather, we could use this plaza like this all year long, this way…Do you remember that time we were in Rhode Island and…

Dusk comes.  When dusk comes it is good to gather together, to grieve, to remember, to accept, to affirm.  Our limited tenure walking on this green earth—our mortality, our fragility—is not easy to face, especially if we try to do so alone.  That may be what Katie Matthews felt at 2am.  So she found a way, just before Commencement, at a time of great joy, to help to gather our community in grief, in a time of great sorrow.  Maybe she remembered the Apostle, ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep’ (Rom. 12:15).  Maybe she recalled the psalmist, ‘weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning’ (Psalm 30:5).  Or maybe she was thinking of her fellow Bostonian Robert F. Kennedy, ‘one person can always make a difference’.

At Commencement on Sunday May 20, Boston University tried to strike this same spiritual balance of celebration and mourning, in opening words, in invocation, and in benediction.  Katie Matthews had led the way.

She leaned forward into grace, sanctified, made a bit more whole, or holy, by grace.  Maybe some of the history and memory of her University, of this place and plaza and pulpit, was active and at work with her.

‘My grace is sufficient for thee’, wrote the Apostle Paul, ‘for my power is made manifest in weakness’. (2 Cor 12: 29)

By the grace of God, we are gathered this morning, a divine grace working to make us whole, holy.  A sanctifying grace.

Isaiah acclaims holiness, the ancient apprehension of holiness enshrined in our ancient Scripture.  The heavens are telling the glory of God.  Creation.  Holy, holy, holy…The mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the mystery in which we live.  The fingers of a child in the first day of life—mysterium tremendum.  The sudden sense of awe at daybreak—mysterium tremendum.  The uncanny arrival of a thought or image, just as it is needed—mysterium tremendum.  Parents placing shoulder boards, epaulets, on their sons and daughters in the hour of commissioning—mysterium tremendum.  The gifts of the table, bread and cup and thanksgiving and memory and presence—mysterium tremendum.    As we watch the celebrations in London this weekend, we recall the rainy night, the strange dark night in late May 1738, in which a troubled cleric, John Wesley, found himself nearly alone in a Sunday evening vesper.  Quiet readings from Romans 8—our chapter today—and from Martin Luther.  A hymn and the London fog to follow.  But then, there, strangely, he found his heart strangely warmed, and had awakened in his soul a sense of personal faith, the prevenient first step on the path of grace.  ‘I felt my heart strangely warmed’, he later wrote.   Will we open our hearts to a personal nudge this morning?

John acclaims such a nighttime encounter, a birth from above.  The baptism of water is a place to start.  But the encounter with spirit, holy spirit, is the doorway to the divine.  Nicodemus moves out of the shadows, one in a long train of several persons in this gospel.  For all the universal power of John, his gospel is a catenae of personal encounters.  Mary at the wedding.  Nicodemus at night.  The woman at the well.  A healing personally delivered.  A man born blind.  Lazarus scratching his way up and out.  We are meant, in this gospel, to picture our own encounter, our own moment.  Holy Communion is the altar call of sanctifying grace.  Step and step.  Hand and cup.  Hand and bread.  Step and step.  A reporter called recently to ask if in Methodism, the historic root of Marsh Chapel, one who has greatly strayed can be forgiven?  A current news story raised the issue.  Hear the gospel:  God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.  The marrow of the divine is loving and giving.  The effects of our sin remain, often incalculable and unexpected.  Sin remains—but does not reign.  Yes, one who has greatly strayed may be forgiven.  In fact Mr. Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, made his signature question to be:  ‘Do you know God to be a pardoning God?’  So you say yes?  And God forgives you.  And your neighbor forgives you.  Now comes the hard part:  you will need to forgive yourself.  Can you forgive yourself? For being that thoughtless, that unheeding, that overweening, that unsuspecting?  The spirit blows where it wills, free and loving and gracious.  Are you ready to have done with lesser things, to take up the cross and follow?  Here is a just and justifying place to start:  Do you know God to be a pardoning God?

Paul acclaims a leading spirit, making children of earth into children of God.  A shout shall lead them!  Abba! A spirit bearing witness with our own best selves, our ownmost selves, that we are children of God.  We have the capacity—immersed in grace prevenient, absolved in grace rightwising—to be clothed in sanctifying grace.  Ours is an apocalypse, a cosmic grace, grace as divine freedom to choose, to change, to take a chance.  John Wesley asked his preachers:  ‘are you going on to perfection, and do you expect to be made perfect in love in this lifetime?’  Perfection meaning wholeness, holiness of heart and life.  Completion, a roundedness of heart and life.  And he would add:  if you are not going on to perfection what you are going on to?  Imperfection?  We are not finally perfectible, but we can go on, grow on, learn and grow.  Start with the ten commandments (no other God, no graven image, no taking of the name of God in vain, remember the Sabbath day, honor father and mother, do not kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness or covet).  Start there.  Step up to the beatitudes (happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted for righteousness—and you when falsely condemned).  Step up there.  So day by day learn to:  Love God and love your neighbor.  It is not that we lack direction.  We lack desire and stamina and willpower and persistence, yes, but not direction.  We know the way, back toward One who is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom, by means of a sanctifying grace.  Are you going on to wholeness?

Katie Matthews said, ‘I just knew I had to do something.’  You will come forward to the table of grace in a moment.  What do you need to do this week?  Come to receive, but come with a response, too.  What do you need to do this week to sense the holy, to feel forgiveness, to grow in grace?  Come to eat and drink, knowing, though, with Katie, that this week you will want to do something.

Breathe or breathe thy loving spirit

Into every troubled breast

Let us all in thee inherit

Let us find that second rest

Take away our bent to sinning

Alpha and Omega be

End of faith as its beginning

Set our hearts at liberty

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