Sanctifying Grace

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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

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