Welcome to a new year. There are various points at which a new year may be celebrated, according to various religious, national, familial and personal calendars. Matriculation is the University new year festival. Welcome back. (Yesterday on Bay State Road there was family with son and daughter, and a car with chairs and stuffed animals hanging out the windows. On that street there were good people—police, resident advisors, custodians, administrators, chaplains, faculty, staff—around to say hello, as in the song: ‘you say yes, I say no, you say stop and I say, you say goodbye and I say hello’ (one Dad started to sing the old Beatles tune!).
We will begin with a pastoral epistle, a little spoken letter, spoken from heart to heart, we trust. Both of our primary readings, but particularly the passage from James, lure us in this direction. You will think too of advice you gave, or were given, encouragement you gave, or were given, when a new day dawned, and a new horizon opened. Your mother simply cried and asked you to call once in a while. Your dad said to remember where you came from. Your girlfriend said she would see you at homecoming, if you came home. Your younger brother just smiled and waved. All of these too were pastoral epistles, probably more significant because more personal.
When faculty enter or return to campus, they come with a sense of the new. When administrators come or return to see the wave of others now present though months absent, they come with a sense of the new. When business people and retirees and the many searching for work come to the chapel on labor day, in a season that really does not overly respect labor anymore, they come longing for a sense of new possibilities. And you? What brought you here, to sacrament and sermon? We are so glad you have come.
On arrival, come the new year, it can seem that this is someone else’s place and somebody else’s time. Especially in the heart of pretty fair sized city, with the noise and traffic of the urban landscape, you can get the feeling that other people know the place better and other people have a better sense of the time here. There is a kind of comforting, though false, sensation that goes with this sensibility. Others know better. I am new, or new again. This is not really my space. I don’t even know what they mean by esplanade, by Fenway, by beach, by garden. They must know better. And I don’t really have any idea what is transpiring around me here. I guess I will just sit and watch, or sit in my room, or sit by and wait.
The word from this pulpit and chancel this morning is not meant to dissuade you entirely from a bit of caution. Caution when you cross the street. Caution when you choose your friends and locations. Caution when you are invited, as steadily we all are, to live in a way that is bitterly beneath who are you meant to be. Caution when you make your plans. Be slow to speak, slow to anger, slow to forget who you really are. Two years ago a tiny young fresh woman from a small South Carolina town came in after a car had hit a cyclist out front. She just sat and trembled. She was remembering who she was. No, we do not discountenance the importance of caution.
Yet that is not the gospel this morning, as important as it is. Be careful. But be caring too. Be protective. But be proactive too. Be self critical. But be self confident too. This is your time. This is your place. The God of wholeness (‘the perfect law’) and the God of freedom (‘the law of liberty’) is loving you into love, gracing you into grace, and freeing you into freedom. If you hear that, and I hope that you do, then go and do it. Be careful. But be caring too. Be protective. But be proactive too. Be self critical. But be self confident too. It may seem or feel otherwise, but hear the good news: this time is your time, not somebody else’s time. These days and months that will fly by are not somehow primary reserved for other people, or somehow better grasped by other people. That fellow who has been teaching thirty years, and you are just starting, is not somehow more fully drenched by this present moment. No. This day, autumn, year, decade—they are your time. Carpe diem. Sin is not taking what is offered: that is the definition of sin, not taking what you are graciously given. We need to work, and to respect those who offer work. I know ours is a capitalist not a laborist system, capitalism not laborism. But this is Labor Day weekend. Perhaps we could remember for a moment those great voices who protected the wives and children of coal miners, of factory workers, of dock yard laborers. Lincoln: Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration (First Message to Congress, 12/3/61) Here is life! Live it. Here is learning! Love it. Here is friendship! Embrace it. Here is challenge! Face it. Here is failure! Admit it. Religious experience is not primarily religious, in the sense that it is not primary found in the hours of church or tutelage or liturgy or devotion. Of course I am contractually obligated and also personally and profoundly committed to imploring you to get yourself to church on Sunday. This you will want to do. But religious experience comes through life, not church only, or mainly. It comes in seizing the day, and embracing the time. Life: L I F E. When you come to church the next several weeks, come thankful for times when time stood still for a moment. In an honest debate. Reading Kant. Pouring yourself into an experiment. Rowing. Seeing the sunrise across the ocean.
Nor, by the way, is this massive space, the 350 buildings of Boston University, and the 350 years of Boston, the home of the bean and the cod, somehow somebody else’s. They are yours for the knowing. This great city opens its heart every day to anyone with a good pair of shoes. Your plan is to make this historic city yours. Buy a standing room only ticket to see the remains of the Red Sox. I mean the Red Sox season. On the first day it snows, walk through the public garden. Take the fast ferry to Cape Cod, once at least. Whenever you hear music coming from a classroom, an auditorium, a concert hall or a chapel, like this one, stop and listen. Make one of the Italian restaurants in the North End a personal favorite. Make that two. On Columbus weekend, walk or jog the whole of the Emerald Necklace. Find your way once each term to the seashore. Do not assume that others, sleeping off steady drinking, or endlessly watching as in a mirror (‘one who observes his natural face in a mirror’) some cyber image, or carelessly involved with someone else’s body, or making plans for future acquisition, or simply hiding out somewhere, do not assume that such others know this place or own this place more than you do. You will be invited to live in ways that are bitterly beneath you. A pastoral letter: hope to grow in the capacity for moral discernment—good and bad, right and wrong, better and worse; avoid a staple, steady diet of addictive substances, drugs or alchohol—stay and be healthy, with some sense of balance; intend to honor others, in this BU home of personalist philosophy that guided MLK and others, by wanting to honor others, especially in their spirit, soul, body, and person, including those most intimate encounters and involvements—honor the other in the other; step aside from the tide of greed in our era: there is more to living than becoming the richest woman in the graveyard; learn from others the habit of empathy—feeling another’s hurts and understanding another’s fears; find some places—nature, worship, friendship, quiet, reading, prayer—where your ownmost self can come up for air.
Life is what you DO in it. You might keep in mind the widow and orphan, the lonely and the needy. Life will provide you many examples. Be no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts. This is your space, your place, your current and your personal location. Take a second seat to no one. You can and should sit in the front of the bus.
Time. This is your time. Space. This is our space. It has been my summer prayer, thinking of our faculty returning, and our administrators on the qui vive, and our staff in full throttle, and our students arriving, and our community coming home from the days of sunshine and family, it has been my prayer to send you this pastoral epistle. Now is your time. Here is your place.
Listen to Robert Frost’s poem about a star…
What will this year bring? It is up to you.
Let us pray:
Gracious God, Holy and Just
Thou Silent Mystery, beckoning deep
In whom we live and move and have our being
Grant us peace, we pray
Give us grace, we pray
In the eyeblink of these four years
Give us peace to resist what we would regret
Give us grace to receive what will make us rejoice
Four years hence, diplomas in hand
May we be heavy with joy and free of regret
Help us to avoid the regret that follows abuse of ourselves,
Of our environment, of substances, and of others.
Warn us away from what, lastingly we will regret.
Fill us with a daily sense of adventure to embrace
What lastingly we will enjoy:
Friendship, discovery, reading, effort, achievement, accomplishment,
Self-giving, devotion, and love.
Grant us peace to resist what we would regret and grace to receive what
Causes us to rejoice.
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel