Jan and I stood alongside our burial plots last Wednesday afternoon. (I trust it will many decades before we need to use them!).
Our post retirement home is nestled in a long forgotten, old village cemetery in Eaton NY. Eaton is the northern tip of Appalachia, economically and culturally and geographically and historically. Its rural poverty has come rather lately to its 250 year history, but is as harsh and weather beaten as any such rural immiseration. Its country culture receives some odd jostling from Colgate University and Hamilton College, both a very few miles away. Its spot on the edge of the great cliff of the Allegheny plateau places it at 1200 feet above sea level, with lakes and great lakes 1200 feet below within a thirty minute drive. Its history includes nearby Peterboro, a town built in the 1850’s by Gerritt Smith for freed slaves, some of whose descendants live there still; and the Oneida Community next door, whose three hundred Perfectionists lived ostensibly without sin and within complex marriage for thirty years, 1845-1875; and the shores of Gichigumi the shining big sea water, near the wigwam of Nicomis, daughter of the moon, the homeland of Hiawatha, 1200 feet down north.
Our burial neighbors will include some born before the Revolution, some several who died in the Civil War, many veterans of the wars of the 20th century, and one fellow, who was interred in 1962, but in whose youth fought with Teddy Roosevelt in the Spanish American War. One wonders about the ongoing work of mowing and trimming, and moreso about the volunteer leadership needed to keep managed a venerable, small graveyard. Our hostess told us there had been no burials this calendar year, to date. They bury until November 1 and then after May 1 or as soon as the ground thaws in the spring.
Jan said she liked the spot. I volunteered that this was good since we would be there for a while. Actually, when you amortize $400 per plot over the course of eternity, the cost is really very little. The rent is too high across the country, but not in the Eaton Village Cemetery. Of course I had sometimes mused about having a bit more upscale social location, going forward. Maybe something on the East Coast—Chatham, Castine, the Cape, North Hampton—something with an ocean view, and ‘east coast standards’ of comportment and attire and presentation. Jan reminded me that I am a Methodist preacher, a country preacher at that, and can not afford ostentation, neither fiscally nor spiritually. Besides, she counseled, see all the beauty here…Yes, see it, and hear it…
Beauty is heard as well as seen. We jog past this place so I know what the music of that meadow brings. The rooster, or more than one, as dawn breaks. The cattle, feet away, lowing, as cattle do. The wind in the evergreens and the two Oak trees. An occasional auto, a more occasional truck, a very much more occasional airplane. Visitors with crosses and flags and flowers and tears. And then the sound of nothing, of silence. Hush, hush, somebody’s calling my name. In the deep winter the deep silence is sonorous. I think of the fourth months of real winter, and the covering, the bed cloth of four feet of snow, and it is well with my soul.
Let me reveal that I begin this way for a discreet homiletical purpose. I preach as a dying man to dying men, as Luther counseled. More so, our series of summer sermons has addressed hope in the face of death.
Apocalyptic language and imagery in the New Testament is a language of hope in the face of death. The cosmic resurrection of Christ and the life he offers is a word of hope, spoken into the teeth of cosmic, universal, individual, personal death. All of our sermons this summer have been very human attempts to announce this unseen hope, embedded, deeply embedded in New Testament apocalyptic language and imagery.
Sometimes, at our worst, we move through life with the supposition that death comes to others, to other people and peoples. It something that befalls others. This very human daily supposition is not limited to young adults, to this new wave of temporarily immortal 18 year olds soon to wash up upon the BU beach. Nor is it limited to distracted, over technologized middle aged parents, trying to keep a household afloat amid the Great Recession of our era. Nor is it limited to the mature, or the very mature, we who should probably know better. Time flies? Ah no. Time stays. We go.
A pastoral digression. I assign you an exercise for this week or some week. It is patented, informally, by me, but I give it freely. It is the RAH OOPS formula for preparation for post retirement. O: write your obituary, at least a first draft which others can redact as needed. O: compose your funeral order of worship with hymns and texts and participants and memorials. P: select a photograph you do not mind being used in days of grieving, in the newspaper or in the funeral home. S: locate your last location, your place and manner of burial or cremation. Place these materials, in the same box or safe deposit box in which you already, already, have placed your DNR, your living will, your will (you may choose to remember Marsh Chapel in your will by the way), and any other significant materials. How your family will thank you! But, as you are mortally aware, all of this preparation, good as it is, is not good enough, not enough.
For all of this preparation lacks the main thing needed in the face of death, in the face of the power of death William Stringfellow so ardently and artfully described, and at the grave, at the end. What matters at last at death is hope. Hope. The best thing about apocalyptic, about Apocalypse Then, is hope. If someone asks you in the grocery store what you heard this summer at Marsh, or from Marsh, you could say, “They preached on the theme of Apocalypse Then, and I heard a word of hope.”
Which brings us to the conclusion, the END, if you will, of this summer’s Marsh Chapel national preacher series on the theme ‘Apocalypse Then’. I am personally and deeply grateful to my colleagues here at the Boston University School of the Theology for their leadership and voice and presence this summer. They gave two summer Sundays. They gave hours of preparation. They gave the best of their hearts and minds. They gave a willingness to treat the hardest material with the finest of skill. Their very presence brought us hope. It happens that we all share an interest in New Testament Apocalyptic. With you I thank Dr Jennifer Knust, Dr James Walters, Br. Larry Whitney and Dr. David Jacobsen for their preaching this summer.
So what have we learned?
Apocalyptic theology in the New Testament is a language of hope lifted in the face of death. At least, this is how I would conclude and summarize our announcement of the Gospel this summer. Apocalyptic followed the prophetic hope for justice on earth, and preceded the late platonic hope for life in heaven, building on the former and preparing the way for the latter. We need them all, to some degree. The prophets hoped for a righteous earth. The Gnostics hoped for a glorious heaven. The apocalyptic hope in the face of death is hope ‘on earth as it is in heaven’, a hope for the apocalypse of heaven on earth. As Paul wrote, ‘Hope that is seen is not hope. Who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience’. (Rom.8)
The first Sunday, we recognized the delay of the parousia, the failure of the primitive apocalyptic hope of the earliest church, and its origins in Jewish Apocalpytic. We saw how this material is often consolation literature, developed among those outcast, those downtrodden, those forgotten, the least and the last and the lost. Apocalyptic gives voice to the hopes of the disinherited: “ 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.”
The second Sunday, we saw in the very word, revelation, which is rendered apocalypse, the inbreaking of God’s love in earth, as when Paul said he had received the gospel by ‘apocalpyse’, by revelation. Apocalpytic gives voice to the hope of faith. Why…we will become a beachhead in the invasion of God’s new creation.
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 third Sunday we saw again how communal and common the ancient eschatological material was in its casting and framework. Apocalpytic gives voice to the voiceless, those left out by the reigning regime, including those left out of decent health care in our time (those unfortunate enough to live in a state other than Massachusetts!) “Yes, there will be bad news, there is no use pretending otherwise, but do we really need to hurry it along? Why not be harbingers of hope and allies of health and people who wish well for others.”
The fourth Sunday we were treated to a careful interpretation of the beheading of John the Baptist, its apocalyptic foreground and background, its history in theology, and its comparisons to contemporary, common, family dysfunctions. The horizon of hope remains, the hope of blueberry pies cooked and enjoyed against a better series of familial arrangements than currently we experience.
The fifth Sunday we were taught again about the profound pessimism out of which Apocalyptic comes, the despair at seeing anything finally righted or rightwised in a crooked world, and the shout of anger and courage faith kindles in such darkness. Hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage, wrote Augustine. Apocalyptic gives voice to the anger and courage present in those who despair, including those injured by handguns in this country, and those willing to question the pervasive dangerous presence of guns (300 million) in our land.
The sixth Sunday we were shown the emergence of Paul’s apocalyptic gospel, and the centrality of his apocalyptic hope for the rest of his work, especially that found in his magnum opus the Epistle to the Romans. Apocalyptic gives voice in the face of death to the power of God’s overcoming grace. Resurrection is resurrection…from the dead.
The seventh Sunday we explored the horizons of endings and beginnings, and how the apocalyptic world view both aids and distorts our contemporary vistas. Apocalyptic gives voice to thinking about the environment, about nuclear energy and weaponry, about choices and decisions in the global community.
The eighth Sunday we were reminded of the crucial influence across the New Testament of Apocalpytic, which one called the ‘mother of Christian theology’. It’s not nice to neglect mother, we determined! Apocalpytic gives voice to honesty about real evil, in real time, from the Holocaust to Ruwanda: “Mark’s Jesus offers the beginning of his apocalyptic gospel. It is a song in darkness, a seed cast across a dark landscape. Yet, amidst the darkness, Mark’s gospel speaks…a promise of dawning light.
The ninth Sunday we listened again for the gospel in the hour of Jesus’ Crucifixion: the dark hour in which the light of God’s presence somehow continues to shine: “Mark’s gospel of an apocalyptic cross is therefore not just an orientation to a past, but a costly opening to a future, a new age, that draws us in our lives forward even in death’s deepest shadows.”
We have both the freedom and the responsibility at Marsh Chapel to ring the bells of learning and piety, of mind and heart together, in a way that will inspire and guide another generation by the best insights of the faith we share. We have aimed high and stretched out. One year on new dimensions in ministry, another on leadership in the Methodism, another on Darwin and faith, another on worship and preaching, another on church renewal, and now, Apocalpyse Then. You will find these sermons published in our annual e-magazine MOTIVES, located on our website. While there are few University pulpits remaining across the country, your radio support, your generosity, the ongoing support of Boston University, and the hard labor of my staff and colleagues here continue to allow us to treat hard topics with tough love.
Apocalpytic is a song of hope, a hope of heaven on earth, a divine hope. It asks of us a certain height, a certain inclination, a change. It moves our self, our being to a new center, one in the green pasture, the great meadow of hope.
In the year of my birth, 1954, Howard Thurman, then in his first year as Marsh Dean, gave lectures at what was to become my alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan. These later were collected in a book, THE CREATIVE ENCOUNTER. With his minimal Christology, tangential connection to Paul, perennialist inclination against narrow religion, and distrust of large portions of the biblical tradition, Thurman would at first seem an unlikely interpreter of apocalyptic material. Yet his typically digressive, imaginative reflections, that winter’s OWU Merrick lectures, at one point touch the marrow of our theme for this summer. Thurman is trying to examine and explain the religious experience (notice his phrase). I wonder you have had such? Its measure for him is not unlike the apocalyptic hope lifted this summer:
“There is a point at which for the individual the surrender of the self in religious experience gives to the life a purpose that extends beyond one’s own private ends and personal risks…What happens then when there is a new center of focus for the life? The answer to that, in part, is this. At such a time as the new center becomes operative, the individual relaxes his hold upon himself as expressed in the self-regarding impulse. A different kind of value is placed upon his physical existence. Death no longer appears as the great fear or specter. The power of death over the individual life is broken… The individual operates from a new center with all that is derived therefrom. The expression is the alteration of his private life growing out of a new value content. God has become the custodian of his conscience. This is of great significance. The center of loyalty allows meaning for the personality; the shift is from some primary social group loyalty…to loyalty to the command of God. (73-81, passim, THE CREATIVE ENCOUNTER).
I wonder. Are you sensing the divine generosity inviting your one life to circle around a new center? Prayer will guide you. Even suffering will perhaps prod you. A moment in worship may lift you up. A friend, a word, a kindness, a note, a sunset, a kiss, a laugh—these are intimations of religious experience that are not religious. But real they are. I wonder. Is your center shifting?
I believe, in a way I cannot understand in full or articulate in full, that God’s love outlasts death, is stronger than death, and overpowers death. But is something I do not see. It is something I sense, though I cannot see it.
But who hopes for what he sees? We hope for what we do not see. And wait for it with patience!
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel