Our Common Wealth

Mark 8: 24-9:1

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A. Today


1.  Jesus is our Common Wealth.  Today and yesterday and everyday, present and past and future.

2.  Last Saturday, along the Charles River, thousands marched in a Heart Walk.  Children zigzagged across the path.  An octogenarian wore his name tag:  Uncle James, a survivor.  Little troops in colored T shirts—yellow, brown, red, silver—marked by hospital names and sponsor names and business names, walked along a common path, not far from commonwealth avenue.  A shorter man and taller woman walked side by side, then, in a moment, clasped hands:  a couple was born!  Older, younger, all colors and shapes, dimly embracing and embodying something unspoken but shared, a common life.   Bought with God’s life, a ransom, one for many.  One group bore this shirt message:  ‘we walk to remember P J’.  (E Hemingway was asked once to write a short story in 6 words.  His reply: ‘Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.’)  One purple group had the right phrase: ‘Take a few steps for a good cause’.  That is about all we do here come Sunday morning.  We parade in.  We process.  We remember our heart, and the dire importance of its health.  We join a world wide parade, come Sunday, here in our modest gothic nave.  We sing, preach and pray, then we recess, and march on.  Underneath the motion and color of the existential parade there abides this deep ground of power, love, grace, freedom and truth:  God has given up God’s life so that we might have life.  Divine absence empowers human presence.  Need I point out that what God has done for us, we in our own measured ways do for those who follow us?  Our life is given, well or poorly, that others might live.

3.  Paul teaches us how to live this truth:  “He who gathered much had nothing over, and he who gathered little had no lack” (2 Cor 8:15):  You have found a way, in a balanced and measured manner, to give to others.  As a community you know the truth of Paul’s advice in giving and living,  found in 2 Corinthians 8.  1.  You are excellent in so many other things, so you will want to excel here.  2.  Real giving is always of one’s own free will.  3.  There is a healthy comparative rivalry for growth in giving which we may affirm.  4. We give according to what we have, so that he who has much may not have too much and he who has little may not have too little.  5. Our measure of what is right, “honorable”, is found both in the sight of God and in the sight of others.  6.  One who sows bountifully reaps bountifully.  7.  Happiness, cheer is the mark of real giving. 8. God will provide what is needed.   9. The main blessing of giving is to the giver:  You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God, for the rendering of this service not only supplies the wants of the saints but also overflows in many thanksgivings to God.  Under the test of this service, you will glorify God by your obedience in acknowledging the gospel of Christ, and by the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others.

4. Though we do not always, regularly recall it, our life is His life, and His, ours.  The pattern of his life becomes the pattern of our own lives.  Not many of us are placed in the situation of the four chaplains in our back window, each of whom gave a younger sailor his life jacket as the ship went down.  Not many of us are Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pacifist become activist become prisoner become martyr.  Not many of us have all of our giving concentrated into one quick stroke, one life moment.  But be not deceived.  You too are giving away your life, one way or another, day by day.  You too are giving life that others may live.  From the mother’s breast milk to the father’s night labor to the teacher’s extra effort to the soldier’s risky service to the grandmother’s soft advice to the officer’s dangerous duty.  To live, truly to be alive in the heart of the Common Wealth, the Christ of God, is to give and love and serve.  Faith is the way we accept the gift, the manner in which we account the ransom, the human life by which we receive the self emptying of the divine life.  God has died that we might live.

5. Jesus is our Common Wealth.  Jesus is our Common Faith.  Jesus is our Common Ground.  Jesus is our Common Hope.  Jesus is our Common Life.  Jesus is our Common Wealth.


B.  Yesterday


1.  Jesus is our Common Wealth.  Our tradition reminds us so.

2.  We at Marsh Chapel, and we at Boston University may not yet have the largest financial endowment in the country, or along the Charles River. One day, that may change. Our current capital campaign, ‘Choosing to be Great”, will help.  If you would like to help us to help that to change, please let me know. Be assured that we will do whatever we can for your personal and spiritual welfare, in gratitude.

3.  But there is another way in which Marsh Chapel, and Boston University may already have the largest endowment in the country, or along the Charles River. Our riches are vocal. Our largest endowment is not financial but audible, not monetary but epistolary, not in the coin of the realm but in the language of the heart. Boston University, and centrally within the University, Marsh Chapel, is a treasure store of voice. You notice that, probably, every Sunday when you come across the plaza, and pass the sculpture and monument to Martin Luther King, birds in flight. Said Karl Barth, ‘The gospel is the freedom of a bird in flight’. But King’s voice was not only or mainly a solo voice. He sang in a choir, in choro novo. He sang as one bird in the flock. Howard Thurman sang with him, for example. So did Allan Knight Chalmers. Robert Hamill’s voice was known in his regular column in motive magazine. Littell lead the way.  Ten Presidents.  Six Deans of the Chapel.


4.  Come Sunday, every Sunday, here at Marsh Chapel:


The Chapel’s gothic nave, built to lift the spirit, welcomes you


The Chapel’s sixty year history, at the heart of Boston University, welcomes you


The Chapel’s regard for persons and personality, both in its Connick stained glass windows and in its current ministry, welcomes you


The Chapel’s familiar love of music, weekday and Sunday, welcomes you


The Chapel’s congregation of caring, loving souls, in this sanctuary, welcomes you in spirit.


Welcome today as we enhance our endowment.



5.  Yes, a word brings a lift to the decanal eyebrow, a stirring to the Episcopal soul, a tingle to the Provostial spirit, a warming to the Presidential heart.  A welcome word, today, on an Alumni Weekend. Now, endowments are crucial for chapel, for school, for university.  We shall other days on which to build such.  But today we celebrate the endowment we already have.  It is a rich and treasure.  A tradition of ‘common wealth’ on Commonwealth Avenue.  It is an endowment vocal not visible, audible not audited, psychic not physical, moral not material.

Listen for its echoes…listen…listen to the voices of Boston University and of Marsh Chapel…


All the good you can…


The two so long disjoined…


Heart of the city, service of the city…


Learning, virtue, piety…


Good friends all…


Hope of the world…


Are ye able, still the Master, whispers down eternity…


Common ground…


Content of character…


6.  Jesus is our Common Wealth.  Jesus is our Common Faith.  Jesus is our Common Ground.  Jesus is our Common Hope.  Jesus is our Common Life.  Jesus is our Common Wealth.


7.  Lift up your hearts:  Signs of courtesy…to someone who could be of no service…reveal to us suddenly…a whole world of beliefs to which (we) never give any direct expression but which govern (our) conduct…(Proust, RTP, 1016)

8.  We too are summoned to take our place in the march, the great procession of faith, the heart walk of our common wealth.  Does anyone want to follow?  Renounce self, love others.  Have a sense that others are you and that you are the other.  Take up the cross, then.

9.  Friends:  there is something so direct and common about this teaching, something we as buyers and sellers, as savers and spenders, as those with pockets and wallets and accounts can ‘get’.   Our life rests on the gift of our Common Wealth, the gift of God in Jesus Christ.  As we learn, very partially, to do, year by year, to give our days and hours and lives for others—our friends, our family, our community, our country, our church, our world, all—so God has done for us, by laying down the divine life, as a ransom.  In some dark mysterious way, this was the only way to get us loose, set us free, give us life.  Isaiah had foretold it.

10.  Calvin wrote first about sanctification and then about justification, first about holiness and then about salvation, first about ethics and then about theology.  For once, we have followed his lead, last week and this.  For the call to justice raises a question.  Why should anyone care?  Why should anyone care to be just?  What makes that claim a worthy claim?  Last week we listened for the moral of this account, the ethical teaching of Mark 8 about justice.  This week we listen for the spiritual meaning, the reason anyone would care to care about the moral of the story, the portrait of God, the life of God, God’s given life, life giving love.  God has died that we might live.  That makes the ransom of Christ so precious.  That makes the gift of each day so valuable.  A radical Calvinist, author of The Death of God, who died himself last week, Gabriel Vahanian, put it this way: ‘God is not necessary but he is inevitable.  He is wholly other and wholly present.  Faith in him, the conversion of our human reality, both culturally and existentially, is the demand he still makes upon us’ (NYT obit, 9/12)

11.  Dorothy Sayer, a radio listener reminded me, put it this way:

The worker’s first duty is to serve the work. The popular catchphrase of today is that it is everybody’s duty to serve the community, but there is a catch in it. It is the old catch about the two great commandments. “Love God – and your neighbor: on those two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”… The catch in it, which nowadays the world has largely forgotten, is that the second commandment depends upon the first, and that without the first, it is a delusion and a snare. Much of our present trouble and disillusionment have come from putting the second commandment before the first… Whenever man is made the center of things, he becomes the storm center of…

C. Everyday

1.  Jesus is our Common Wealth.  Our Scripture reveals Him so.

2.  There is something beyond our telling, something down deep on which we ground everything else.  T Wilder:  we don’t take it out and look at it very often but still we know:  there is something eternal about every human life.

3.  Behold, I tell you a mystery…Our Gospel lesson cuts to the heart of faith and life.  The mystery and the rigor of following after a crucified Christ have ever been right in the heart of faithful life.   We are invited to join the parade.  If nothing else, our faith and tradition squarely face original sin, inevitable death, communal guilt, and tragic loss.  Today’s lesson is an early formulation of this heart and this faith and this life.  There come moments, regularly, in which the question reverberates, ‘but…you…who do you say that I am?’  The earliest church lived under the shadow of this question, and so do we.  When others see us, and see us taking the name of Christ, whom do they see that we say, in our living, who he is?  Peter’s rebuke is remembered and rehearsed because some, or maybe better said, some part of all of us, find the crucified Christ unacceptable.  Peter is told:  get behind me, that is, follow, learn, and take up.  Peter names Christ in the same way that Mark’s church named him, and in the same way that you do here, too.

4.  Jesus walk is to some measure that of his followers as well.  It is ours, too.  We too labor on without full or final victory.  We too, whether suddenly or slowly, give up the life given us at birth.  We too face and struggle in facing up to injustice, tragic mistake, forces that make human life inhuman.  We, too, live and die seemingly apart from God.  The end, the fulfilling wholeness of the reign of God, has in fact not come.  We cut to the heart of being, of being itself, of being alive, today, Mark 8:27, this last week of summer, 2012.

5.  There is though another side to the same story.  Jesus’ path becomes ours, to some measure.    We too live with a sense of the dawn of a better history at hand.  We too live with the potential, always present, for a new rebirth of wonder, love and praise.  We too struggle forward, in the midst of much ambiguity, and sometimes in a depth and despair of pain, guided on by a north star of hope marked ‘will rise again’.  We too face the future free to shape it.  Free to make our mark, to rise up for a just cause, to rise up for a just peace, to rise up for a just world, to rise up for the hope of a common wealth, a shared future, a siblinghood of society in which every child is cherished and no man maligned and no woman wasted and every person protected.   Wealth, to have worth, will be common, shared, spread out.  For what would it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?  What can one give in exchange for one’s soul?

6. Jesus is our Common Wealth.  Jesus is our Common Faith.  Jesus is our Common Ground.  Jesus is our Common Hope.  Jesus is our Common Life.  Jesus is our Common Wealth.

7.  Our Common Wealth, who gave his life as a ransom for others.  You may not be a lasting fan of atonement theory and theology:  nor am I.  Yet the one partial explanation which St Mark will give, later in the Gospel, for the death of Jesus, marks him forever as our Common Wealth.  In explicitly commercial terms, mercantile language, the language of payment and recompense, of ransom, one for all, Jesus is so named:  Common Wealth.  He, the basis for our common life and living community.  While you may have heard so, you may not have heard, really heard the word:  God has given up God’s life for the life of the world.

8.  Yes, the expectation of the immediate return was disappointed.  Our disappointment continues, to this day.  Our hoped for future lies still in the future.  Yet, along the way there is a presence, there is an alluring mystery, a ground underneath the ground on which we walk.  It is holy ground.   A great gift has been given, a great price paid, a great offering made.  All the twirling magic of life, along the heart walk of faith, all of this life has been bought with a price.  When Mark asks himself, ‘why did Jesus die?’, he gives only one answer:  as a ransom (so, rightly for once, Marcus, II, 605).    The ‘wealth’ that has produced our common life, our common wealth, is Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  There is something very disturbing, and odd, yet true and clear, here.  God has given God’s life for ours.  We are to go and do the same for others.  The figure of a ransom—a bag of treasure given over to open a way to freedom.  The Greek word for ransom means release.  The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many (for all).  One life given, life given all.  Jesus is our common wealth which releases all of the rest of life, the life underneath all other life, the ground of life and being and all.  For many?  How many?  Very many!  All!  He purchases a way forward, a ticket, a passage for the voyage, at a very steep price.

9.  The life of God, God’s very life, moves to its nadir.  Our common life, the life of the world, human life, is freed to move to its apex.  God dies. Man lives.  The Son of Man dies.  The sons of men live.  Behold—SURSUM CORDA—the gospel mystery!   The divine generosity is whole, absolute, complete, perfected.

10. As we shall sing together in just a few months:


Jesus is our childhood’s pattern

Day by day like us he grew

He was little, weak and helpless

Tears and smiles, like us he knew

And he feeleth for our sadness

And he shareth in our gladness


And our eyes at last shall see him

Through his own redeeming love

For that child so dear and gentle

Is our Lord in heaven above

And he leads his children on

To the place where he has go


~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill,

Dean of Marsh Chapel

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