Archive for January, 2013

And Are We Yet Alive? Methodism 2013

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

Luke 4: 14-21

Click here to hear the full service.

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Preface

Today we hear from a prophetic text, Luke 4, regarding Jesus and his home town community, and we hear it following a good week of good words about a modern prophet, a patriot preacher, Martin Luther King, our BU alumnus.  As Ernest Freemont Tittle said, ‘the preacher can find always something innocuous to talk about’, but do not time and text require some prophetic word for us, from us today?  If we are to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly, we shall then need to summon the courage to listen and speak with courage, and to do so regarding not only the endless circle of concern around us, but also the smaller circle of influence, the community in which we live.

I will bear witness.  Born a Methodist, ordained to the Methodist ministry, I will die a Methodist, a superannuated Methodist preacher. All the lastingly good things of my life have come as gifts of grace, in and through this very church.  Name in baptism. Faith in confirmation. Community in Eucharist. Deepest friendship in marriage.  Job in ordination.  Daily pardon in prayer.  Eternal hope in unction.  I am a singing Methodist and will continue to greet life with an openhanded Methodist handshake.   And my grandaughter’s  mother, grandmother, two great grandmothers, and great great grandmother  all married Methodist ministers.  I love my church and I am part of a multi generational investment in its preaching ministry!

That is, I pray to speak as one who speaks for my people, and so, I hope, has earned the right to speak to my people.  If you speak for people, then you can speak to people.  God is for us, so God’s word can speak to us.   I love the Methodist church.  Any church though is human, very human.  As Tillich wrote long ago, ‘the church is always both a representation and a distortion of the divine’.   This past year has proven that again.

Some background.  Methodism lives on four levels, or through four forms of conference.  (A conference, incidentally, is a time and place in which to confer with one another.)  Each of the four has one discreet, specific task.  Our general conference, 1000 global delegates gathered once every four years, is responsible to write and rewrite our Book of Discipline, our church law.  The jurisdictional conferences, split up regionally across the country, meet every four years to elect general superintendents, our bishops whose job is to appoint clergy.  The annual conference, a smaller gathering of representatives from hundreds of churches, in each jurisdiction, has the single job of recruiting and retaining ministers, and ordaining them every year.  Our charge conference, our local church, is in the work of making disciples, people of faith who love and give in the spirit of Jesus.   Disciple, Minister, Bishop, Discipline:  these are the products of our conferences.

A. And Are We Yet Alive?

One:  Our general conference met in Tampa, in late April.   Rather than affirming the full humanity of gay people, and granting the 10% of children who are gay all the graces I have happily received (see above), the Conference wrote a Discipline that excludes them from marriage and ordination. We have learned the horrific habits in this country, of finding ways to fractionalize the marginalized.  It has been heavy lifting over decades to affirm that all people are people, imbued with integrity by the grace of God—former slaves, women, the poor, people of color, the stranger, the otherwise abled, all.  Integers not fractions. The US constitution before amendment accounted some as 3/5 human.  No wonder that great Boston abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, called the document, ‘a compact with the devil and a covenant with hell’.   I wonder what he would say about our 2012 General Conference and Discipline?  But I must ask, in reflective discernment:  where did Tampa come from? Some of Tampa, our General Conference, came from the results of the other conferences, over many years.

Two:  Some of it came from our Jurisdictional conferences.  In July, our jurisdictional conferences met in five cities across the country to elect general superintendents.  In some cases they were chosen on the basis of proven ability, leadership experience, measures of churches grown or people rescued or dollars raised or buildings constructed, ministers from strong churches and significant pulpits, who had shown the ability to speak well to large groups and to lead complex organizations.   But in some cases   elections were based not on ability or proven strength, but on representation, to show a ‘rainbow’ of representative general superintendents, apart from preparation or capacity to do the job, and, ironically, even tragically, in consequence, whether or not their tenure will have any positive impact for underrepresented others.  The gospel is about redemption, not representation.   Now I will continue to speak for, and so to, the inclusion of all at every level of church life–that is part of the redemptive work of the Spirit in the church.  But in what other walk of life do we select significant leadership on a narrowly representative basis?  Dentists?  Pilots? Surgeons? And what good will it do to open up the church, especially for those most in need of such openness, if the church itself shrinks, ages, weakens and dies, for lack of building up?  Our jurisdiction has off loaded 60% of its membership since my confirmation at age 13 in 1968.  The chief reason for this is poor leadership, starting with the top.   It is not somehow God’s will to shrink the church we love.  That is a direct consequence of our poor leadership:  moribund preaching, mediocre pastoral care, and unimaginative congregational life.

Three: Some came up from our annual conferences.  My own annual conference, a new and unformed body across New York State, met in June.   Two overarching issues should have been engaged, because they affect dramatically the present and future quality of the clergy.   Other than my questions, posed in the few minutes still allowed at annual conference for conference, that is, for a time to confer, no one addressed them.  The first is the proposal, supported, let it be starkly recalled, by every north eastern bishop, to eliminate the security of appointment, or guaranteed appointment,  a modest form of tenure, for ordained clergy (who have 4 years of college, 3 years of seminary, 3 years of supervised work—all before ordination;  who earn a modest annual salary plus housing; who agree to move, potentially every year, at the direction or whim of the general superintendent and cabinet; who are responsible to raise apportionment dollars equivalent to 25% of their church budgets (even the Mafia is kinder in percentage pickup); and who will work, if they are to be effective, 60-80 hours a week, 48 weeks a year, for 40 years:  and we cannot even tell them that they somehow, in whatever tiny rural parish or other, will at least be able to feed, house and care for their children?)  The second is related.   Unwilling to invest in elders, the superintendents are driven to hire non-elders, people who are not trained, not educated, not ordained, not in covenant, not traveling elders.  In our yet to be fully born conference, this means that 540 of 931 pulpits are occupied, occupied by good hearted people, but people who have not studied the Bible in depth, do not know the history or teaching of the church, have had no preparation in counseling, in sacramental understanding, in worship and preaching, in administration, in pastoral care.   It is one thing to have laity Sunday once a year.  But every Sunday?  Do you go to laity Wednesday when the emergency room lets people who would like to be doctors administer drugs, set bones, and use ct scanners?  Do you go to laity Friday when people who would like to be bankers get to open and close the vault,  establish accounts, and make investments of your savings?   How about housing?  Do you sign up aspiring carpenters, who think they might have some talent in digging foundations and setting roof lines to build your house?    Is it OK with you if the principal of your daughter’s junior high school never graduated from high school himself?   Granted: education alone is not enough.  Heart and head we need together in the influential, delicate, personal, salvific work of pastoral care and preaching.   Not 540, but 40 non-elders is all we should accommodate.   Have the elders preach multiple times:  better one good sermon preached 7 times, than 7 bad ones once each.   Our annual conference provides everything but the one thing needful—a chance to confer.  Our annual conference attends to everything except its job—providing excellent clergy.

Four:  And some came too from our local charge conferences. I went for worship this summer to a beloved church.  In 1995 this was a vibrant congregation, 230 in worship in 2 services, a 7 day full building, the second strongest salary in the conference, a warm formal worship service not unlike ours here at Marsh, and, most proudly, a fine parsonage.)  What did we find that Sunday?  We found a worship service that is hardly a worship service, at least to my mind, with 60 present, and learned that the church was in the process of selling the parsonage.  They need the money and lack the vision to hold on to it.  And worship? I grieve to ask:  Is it worship when the minister roves the sanctuary (ceiling paint peeling, by the way) with a microphone, like Phil Donahue?  Is it worship when beautiful four part hymn harmonies are ditched in favor of follow the bouncing ball screen pseudo music?  Is it worship when the sermon is a potpourri of miscellania, unrelated to text, to setting, to mission, or to soul?  Is it worship without a choir, without order, without reverence, without silence, without offering, without a sense of Presence?  No, it has become a hodgepodge of vain attempts to be entertaining, which are not even entertaining.  And enchantment?  Gone.  People do not need the church to be their Rotary Club, their neighborhood cookout, or their reality TV show.  They need the word of God rightly preached, the sacraments duly administered, and service rendered to the poor.  When this happens, Sunday by Sunday, then churches grow.  You cannot preach without theology, and you cannot worship without preaching.  In short the general conference in Tampa had wellsprings, of sorts, in jurisdictional, annual and charge conferences.

B. Methodism 2013

So what are we in my beloved church to do in 2013?

After Tampa, in May, I determined to spend six months in prayer, and visitation.  By phone or in person I spoke with 31 trusted friends. I meditated on their counsel, and came to only four fairly meager conclusions. 1. We need steady ongoing conversation, conference among elders, in season and out. 2.  We need to follow the money. 3. We need to focus on pastoral care for gay people.  4. We need to focus on pastoral embrace for lay people.  Many young elders are leaving the church.  Many middle age elders want to split the church.  Many older elders are using covert, hidden means to address the situation. I will not leave, split or dissemble.  So that means finding another path.  I will have to go deeper.  Four thoughts.

One: There is something in this journey that will call me out and down further into faith.  The language of the psalms fills my heart.   I prayed and heard this:  You will have to go down deeper.

Two:  One part of the path is in regard to our ministry, the other part, regards money.  In a way, the first part is easier.  That is, most churches over time can come close to doing what we do regularly here at Marsh Chapel:  marry gay people, hire gay clergy, minister directly to the gay community, and speak frankly, as today, about the full humanity of gay sisters and brothers.  The second part is harder, about money.  We will need means to keep from sending money, by apportionment, to fund the dehumanization of gay people, whether in America or in Africa.  Fortunately, our general funds are several, not single, and local church treasurers, at the direction of the lay vote in the charge conference, can send to some and not to others.  This will take some careful planning.  My own investment will be to continue to lift my voice, to continue in eight words that form the future for my church: Gay people are people.  Lay people are people.

Three:  Gay people are people, at least 5/5 human, endowed by their creator, and ours with Life, liberty, happiness—they deserve to enjoy these too, including ordination and marriage. Jesus can teach us this if we will let him.  Remember he said to consider the lilies of the field, and how much God loves even these slight floral creatures in God’s garden.   Gay identity is creation, not fall, God’s gift, not human sin, as is straight identity.   Love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself.  Try to imagine what it must be like to be a 9 year old, who knows he is in the sexual minority. Paul can teach us this if we will listen to him.  Paul?  Yes, Paul.  He places the pinnacle of the good news at Galatians 3:28:  ‘in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no male and female’.  And no gay and straight.   The gospel is about redemption, not about tradition.  Gospel finally and ever trumps tradition.  Gay people have integrity, are beloved, by God’s grace, just as you are and just as you do. John can help us, if we will read what he says.  He says there will be another advocate, even a spirit of truth, which will lead us, lead us out into further truth, which is not in that gospel, or, even, in the Bible.  There is a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe.  Truth involves continuity with past teaching and also discontinuity through new insight, by the gift of the spirit of truth.  Our failure regarding gay people is theological.  Our doctrine of creation could use a recollection of Jesus.  Our doctrine of redemption could use a re-reading of Galatians.  Our doctrine of the Spirit could use the voice of John.  Gay people are people: the Bible tells me so.  This is not only an issue of justice, nor only an issue of clerical integrity, nor only an issue of theological truth.  It is most profoundly an issue of pastoral care. The physician has responsibilities to many institutions—her practice, her board examinations, her hospital, and her community.  But in the end, all these and others are eclipsed by the care for the patient, the health of the patient.  The pastor also has many responsibilities to institutions, or conferences—charge, annual, jurisdictional, and general.  But in the end, all these are eclipsed by the requisite care for the parishioner, for the 8 and 9 year old children who are among the sexual minorities.  Gay people are people.

Four:  Lay people are people.  Beloved, it will do us no good only to open up the church.  We also have responsibility to build up the church.  The needs, longings, reports and voices of lay people count, matter, last, and have meaning.   The church exists for mission, as fire for burning.  Fishing and planting, evangelism and stewardship—these are the joy of faith.  And the fun, too.  Lay people deserve and desire enchanting worship.  We have every reason to provide vibrant, warm, ordered, traditional worship.  Sixty minutes of fire and love, every Sunday.  We will want to draw on the deep well of tradition—not traditionalism but tradition.  Listen to the lay people.  They have no need for bongo drums, shallow hymns, neglected liturgy, or bad music.  They respond to excellence. They deserve it.  Traditional worship is what we owe them.  Likewise, lay people deserve loving, intelligent, devoted, competent pastoral ministry and preaching.  We once knew that so deeply we needed no reminder.  Traveling preachers, taking grace and freedom and love from post to post—this is what we once did best.  Please:  no more lay pastors, local pastors, deacons than absolutely necessary.  Give us excellent ministers, educated and ordained, the brightest and the best!  And are some of these local pastors excellent?  Excellent!  Then educate them and ordain them.  Put up or shut up.   And lay people deserve the best that money can provide, and the best exemplary teaching about money we can provide.  If nothing else, our tradition provides stellar disciplines about giving.  Our people need to be taught, by the example of the clergy, to tithe.  Well led, they will and do well follow.  Tradition in worship, Traveling elders in the pulpit, Tithing all day long—I cannot begin to tell you how much difference these three currently neglected features of spiritual life make when they are practiced, and especially when they are practiced together!

Coda

Let us open up the Methodist church by living the gospel:  Gay people are people.  Let us build up the Methodist church by living the gospel:  Lay people are people. I plan to slog ahead.  I will find means to advocate for the disciplinary inclusion of all people, like the ministry we have here at Marsh.  I will gather a group at some point for further conference.  I will find ways to encourage the real leadership of the church to be identified and selected for leadership, just as we are doing here at Marsh.  I will find words to convey my ongoing respect for the noble calling, the challenging adventure, that is, gospel ministry, in my annual conference, in the same fashion we do here at Marsh.  And I will continue to grow the churches of the church, to live up to the Harry Denman evangelism award, and to appeal to all who have received seven helpings of faith, once in while to think of inviting a neighbor who has not had the first course of the religious meal, to come worship at Marsh.

I take heart from voices I overheard this week.

Walter Fluker:  ‘We need fresh water to swim in.’

Melvin Talbert (quoting Burke): ‘All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing’.

Sonya Chang-Diaz:  ‘When you pray, move your feet.’

Deval Patrick:  ‘People may be of limited means, but of limitless possibilities’.

Elizabeth Warren:  ‘When (the President) makes his solemn oath, I will make my own silent one in my heart’.

Barack Obama:  ‘Freedom is not just for the lucky, nor happiness for the few…From Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall…our journey is not complete…we must act knowing that our work will be imperfect’

Rev. Luis Leon:  ‘Que Dios Os Bendiga’

So that one day, as was said of old, it may be said, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’. (Luke 4: 21)

 

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

 

By Water and the Spirit

Sunday, January 13th, 2013

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Click here to hear the full service.

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Good morning.

 

Let me first begin by thanking Bob Hill for the opportunity to be with you today as your preacher.  The dean is away this week, and I pray for traveling mercies as he returns for the first Sunday of the new academic term next week.

 

Today, in Luke’s gospel we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan by his cousin John, and we are called to remember our own baptism.  Like Jesus, we are baptized by water and the Spirit.  The ordinariness of the water is an outward sign of the extraordinary inward working of God in each of our lives.  In hearing and recalling Christ’s baptism, we recall our own baptism and seek renewed relationship with God.

 

Students, staff, and especially faculty are well aware that this week marks the beginning of the Spring term of the academic calendar here at Boston University.  To all of you, welcome back from break and welcome back to school.  However, you may not be aware that tomorrow also marks the beginning of a new season of the church’s liturgical calendar: “ordinary time.”  Rarely do the rhythms of academic life and liturgical life align, but today we celebrate Jesus’ baptism and with it comes the end of the church’s celebration of the Christmas season.  To those still recovering from Christmas, welcome back to ordinary time.  We celebrated Jesus’ birth less than three weeks ago, and tomorrow the church returns to “ordinary time” to focus on Jesus’ life in ministry.  Reflection on Jesus’ first thirty years is condensed to just three short weeks in the church calendar.  Jesus’ birth, the visitation by the magi, and his baptism as an adult, which we celebrate today, are all part of the Christmas season.  Next week, our weekly lectionary gospel texts return to attestations of the signs and miracles of Jesus’ ministry.  Soon, we will remember Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana at the behest of his mother.  However, this month-long period of remembering the signs of Jesus’ ministry is just a brief interlude before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, in mid-February, or in academic lingo, mid-terms, followed by an all-too quick lead up to finals.

 

As we transition from the Christmas season into ordinary time, we change our vestments from the white and gold of the Christmas celebration to the more plain, green vestments.  Certainly there is nothing commonplace about the miracles recounted in the gospels, but the church recognizes that there is something especially special about the miracle of Jesus’ baptism, which we mark today.

 

Just as the church keeps the celebratory vestments of the Christmas season out for this Sunday which celebrates Jesus’ baptism, we are called to remember that our own baptism is significant and special.  Sometimes, however, the church does not do a good job of communicating the specialness of the sacrament, the fact that we are baptized by both water and the Spirit.

 

This past week my wife and I had the opportunity to vacation in Puerto Rico, and spent most of the week in Old San Juan.  The walled city is 500 years old, and has a particular affinity for the Epiphany, the visitation of the magi to the young Jesus, perhaps in part because the city was spared an English invasion on that feast day more than 200 years ago.  By January 1st, US retailers remove their Christmas regalia and Christmas music disappears from the airwaves.  The Christmas season is over, as far as the American retailer is concerned.  But in the church calendar it is still Christmastide, and in San Juan, Christmas is still in full swing.  Christmas lights are everywhere, and the Spanish-English radio stations favored by our taxi drivers are still delivering a variety of Christmas music.  Instead of milk and cookies, children leave grass for the pack animals of the magi in hopes of receiving presents from the three kings on Epiphany.  The familiar, bearded Santa Claus who poses for pictures with children is replaced by three bearded men in royal attire.  This Christmas season fervor culminates on the Epiphany last Sunday with an island-wide party; many businesses are closed, and the Monday following is a state holiday.  Yes, it seems that another religious holiday is commercialized in Puerto Rico, but in Puerto Rico, this special emphasis on the Epiphany makes it readily apparent that we, and the church, remain in the spirit of the Christmas feast through this week.  Your tree might have dried out weeks ago and you might have put it out for pick up on December 26, but how can we as the church here in the US mark the fullness of the Christmas season and mark the transition back into ordinary time on this feast of the baptism of our Lord?

 

While my wife reads four languages, Spanish is not one of them.  I took a Spanish course or two, or three, in college, but together we still sometimes had a difficult time navigating a menu or navigating the city.  Nevertheless, we managed to visit each of the historic churches in the old city, all but three are Roman Catholic.  The others are Pentecostal, Presbyterian, and Methodist.  As a United Methodist clergy couple, it was delightful to see the vibrancy of the Iglesia Metodista as the cross and flame greeted us on the side of many churches as we traveled throughout mainland Puerto Rico and the island of Culebra.  In one church in the old city, whose denominational affiliation shall remain nameless, just inside the entrance was a large, stone baptismal font.  Its mouth was over a meter wide, and it was covered in centuries-old elaborate carvings.  But inside, the font was not brimming with water but contained what appeared to be a small brown doggie dish with just a bit of water.  The grandness of the font, which was designed to remind the viewer of the importance of baptism and the presence of the Spirit, was dwarfed by the lowliness and ordinariness of what it contained.  The doggie dish did not call to mind the life-changing nature of baptism.  The majesty of the font seemed to be reduced to a few ordinary drops of water in a very ordinary container.  Now, I am not trying to enter the debate about the amount of water necessary for baptism, sprinkling or full immersion, marble font or backyard swimming pool.  This is simply to say that baptism sometimes seems to be just ordinary, just another part of ordinary time, not a part of the Christmas season.

 

And unfortunately the importance of baptism seems to be lost in many of our churches today.  This last Sunday of the Christmas season ought be a special time to remember the sacrament, an opportunity to reaffirm the vows of our baptism or the opportunity to explore receiving the sacrament for the first time.  Baptism marks a transition in the liturgical season because it is a sacrament which equips us to live our day-to-day, “ordinary” lives as Christians.  Today, I encourage you to renew your commitment to walk with God or to think about making a new commitment to living a renewed life through Jesus.

 

In Jesus’ time, there were many people preaching forgiveness of sins and baptizing people, or at least using water for ritual purification purposes, which is one possible explanation of the practices of the Qumran community.  John, himself an ordinary man, baptized a great number of ordinary, observant Jews, but in Jesus’ own baptism, as our gospel author recounts, something extraordinary happened: “the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus” and Jesus was recognized as God’s Son.  Jesus’ baptism is about much more than water and welcome into a community of faith; it is about God’s promise of the divine presence in our lives through the Holy Spirit.

 

Now I have been to a great many baptisms in my life and I have yet to see the heavens opened and a dove descend on the individual being baptized, but we, as a Christian community, have faith that in the outward sign of baptism, namely water, we are affirming God’s love for the individual and each and every one of us, and God’s promise to be with us.  John Wesley, the 18th century reformer of the Anglican Church, upon whose teachings the Methodist Church would later be founded, affirmed the Anglican sentiment that baptism, like communion, is “an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same.”  John Wesley’s theological heritage lives on in countless churches and institutions in America and abroad, including here, Marsh Chapel and Boston University.  We believe that in every baptism, no matter how ordinary it seems, something extraordinary happens.  We may not see it, but we believe that the Holy Spirit is fully present with everyone baptized in the name of Jesus and that in baptism an individual is recognized as a beloved child of God.

 

In baptism, we recognize all three modes of God’s grace.  We need not see a dove descend on an infant whose head is sprinkled with water because we affirm God’s love for us and desire to be in relationship with us even before we recognize God or seek to be in relationship.  This prevenient grace is God’s presence with us, through the Holy Spirit, from our birth to our death.  Baptism itself is a means of justifying grace, a sign of new life in Christ.  It is an expression of our desire to be in relationship with God and God’s continued commitment to be in relationship with us.  Finally, baptism also invites the community of faith in which an individual is baptized to be in intentional relationship with the person as he or she is perfected in faith and perfected in love for God and one another.  Sanctifying grace is God’s transformative gift to us through which we become better people.  Baptism marks an individual’s initiation into a life-long process of sanctification, upheld by the prayers and presence of a community of believers, like this chapter community here at Marsh Chapel.   Baptism equips us for the life of faith.

 

The last several decades have seen a revival of the sacraments and of a sacramental life among Protestants.  Here at Marsh Chapel in recent years, especially under the leadership of Dean Hill, there has been a renewal of devotion to sacramental life as well.  Baptisms have become more regular, and for several years, communion has been offered weekly while academic classes are in session.  Among the opportunities to receive communion is a 7-minute liturgy, Common Ground Communion, on Thursday afternoons at 12:20 on Marsh Plaza, which will resume this coming Thursday.  It offers an opportunity for students to receive the sacrament and tangibly experience the presence of God and God’s grace between afternoon classes.  But the opportunity is not limited to students.  The communion table here at Marsh Chapel is open to all: students, staff, faculty, people unaffiliated with the university, straight and gay, United Methodist, Presbyterian, Christian-curious, and un-churched alike.  The opportunity to experience God’s presence and grace through the sacrament of communion is always available at Marsh Chapel.  Should you wish to receive, and there is not a communion service planned, contact a chaplain or a member of the ministry staff, and we will be more than happy to provide the opportunity to receive the sacrament.

 

Unlike the sacrament of communion, which the church urges us to seek regularly, if not constantly, baptism is a one-time only occurrence.  It marks, as I said, a change in our lives, a commitment to be in relationship with God and a commitment from a faith community to be in relationship with us.  It marks a turning point in our life-journey.  For many this is a conscious decision we make as youths or adults, but for many others, baptism was a commitment made by loved ones that we would be nurtured in the church and guided to accept God’s grace for ourselves.

 

In either case, we are asked to earnestly repent of our sins and seek God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of our neighbors.  Moreover, in baptism we commit to seek better patterns of life, that we might be closer to God and neighbor.

 

We seek a baptism by water which washes us clean of sins, a baptism by the Holy Spirit in which we commit ourselves to God and recognize God’s relationship with us, and a baptism by the fiery passion of God’s grace which frees us to new life through Jesus Christ.

 

John Wesley taught that in baptism a person was cleansed of the guilt of original sin, initiated in to the covenant with God, admitted into the church, made an heir of the divine kingdom, and spiritually born anew.  A lot is going on in the few moments of baptism.  We receive absolution from sin while also committing ourselves to new relationship with God and neighbor.  Moreover, we only need to do it once.  Certainly we need to reaffirm the relationship with God we recognize in baptism, but that relationship never leaves us.

 

Sometimes we don’t realize the full wonder and mystery of the sacrament.  Sometimes we need the visual cues of the church to help us identify the importance of our actions and the stories of the scripture.  Like the etched-stone, baptismal font I encountered this week in Puerto Rico, sometimes it helps us to have a visual or tactile sign of the mystery of the sacrament.  Sometimes it helps us to identify the specialness of the sacrament and to remember the moment of our baptism to touch water or remember being enveloped in water.  This week, if you are sitting in the nave of Marsh Chapel, you see a large clear bowl filled with water sitting on small wooden table at the front of the nave.  I encourage you during our prayer time following the sermon or during the offertory to come forward and touch the water and remember your baptism.  Or perhaps you are sitting on the cape, sipping your coffee.  Later this afternoon, take a stroll on the beach, and run your hands in the water.   Perhaps you are driving home from your own Sunday morning service: I encourage you to recall the wonder of water, perhaps a beautiful beach or a wondrous waterfall.  I think of La Mina waterfall near El Yunque in Puerto Rico, where my wife and I swam in the cool mountain water as the thirty-foot, strong falls washed over us or Playa Flamenco, a horse-shoe white-sands beach with warm, gentle waves.  Remember a time when you were immersed in the wonder of water and remember that you are similarly wrapped in God’s glory and clothed in the Holy Spirit.

 

We trust that in the Spirit, whose presence we accept in baptism, God will be our constant companion and supporter.  God does not abandon God’s covenant with us, even if we wander from it.  The Spirit remains steadfast, chasing after us as a tireless friend even when we turn away.  The church provides opportunities for us to remember our own special relationship with God.  While I was preparing this sermon this week, my wife quipped in the Dunkin Donuts-desolate land of Old San Juan, that “American runs on Dunkin, and the Church runs on dunkin munchkins.”  Now, of course her remark was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but at the heart of the mission of the church is telling the story of Christ and offering opportunity for women and men of all ages to develop deeper relationship with God.

 

Perhaps you wish to renew that relationship with the God today.  Perhaps you wish to think more about accepting the gift of relationship with God for the first time.  If you have not received the sacrament of baptism and feel moved to closer relationship with God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit and seek to experience God’s grace through the sacrament, I encourage you to speak with me or another member of the chapel staff following the service or to call or email the chapel office this week and ask to speak with a member of the ministry staff about receiving the sacrament.

 

For those who have received baptism and who wish to renew their relationship with God, I invite you to renew your baptismal vows now and to come and touch the water during our prayers of the people. I invite you to recommit yourself to God and to accept the presence of the Spirit in your life anew.  If you have a United Methodist Hymnal in front of you, you may wish to turn to page 34 to read the vows of baptism.

 

Brothers and sisters in Christ:

Through the Sacrament of Baptism

We are initiated into Christ’s holy Church.

We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation

And given new birth through water and the Spirit.

All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.

 

Through the reaffirmation of our faith

We renew the covenant declared at our baptism,

Acknowledge what God is doing for us,

And affirm our commitment to Christ’s holy Church.

 

On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,

Reject the evil powers of this world,

And repent of your sin?

 

If so, please respond, “I do.”

 

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you

To resist evil, injustice, and oppression

In whatever forms they present themselves?

 

If so, please respond, “I do.”

 

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,

Put your whole trust in his grace,

And promise to serve him as your Lord,

In union with the Church which Christ has opened

To people of all ages, nations, and races?

 

If so, please respond, “I do.”

 

According to the grace given to you,

Will you remain a faithful member of Christ’s holy Church

And serve as Christ’s representative in the world?

 

If so, please respond, “I will.”

 

We remember our baptism and are thankful.

 

May the Holy Spirit work within us,

That having been born through water and the Spirit,

We may live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ

And be assured of God’s love for all people.

Amen.

 

 

~Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership Development

 

Jesus and His Beloved Disciple

Monday, January 7th, 2013

John 13:21-26

John 19: 25b-27

John 20:1-10

John 21: 7, 20-24

 

You might wonder about the selection of passion, death and resurrection texts for a marriage homily. Aside from the fact that marriage is about as important as death and resurrection, I have a different point in mind for these texts, namely, what they say about the love between Jesus and the Beloved Disciple.

Most people articulate the depths of their identity in terms of stories to which they relate.  Children relate to the stories of their parents and their roles in the community.  People define themselves in terms of the stories of their friends, of their neighborhood, of their livelihood, and sometimes of their historical situation.  Christianity has long claimed that the most important story to relate to is that of Jesus.  Among the most important things about us is that we are sinners judged by him and redeemed by his love.  I remember being told as a small child that if I sat on Jesus’ lap he would love and cuddle me, along with all the other children, even if my parents were put out with me.  The stories of Jesus tell us how to relate to the strong and the weak, the wise and the innocent, the hypocrites and the desperate seekers.  John’s stories of Jesus in particular focus on how he would have us love one another and bear up under stress and betrayal.  Although the stories of Jesus say very little about sex, the Church from early on took Jesus’ story to be that of the bridegroom of the Church itself.  Christians corporately and individually are to find our deep identity by imagining ourselves to be married to Jesus, a stretched metaphor if there ever was one!

Gay men and women have been frustrated in the attempt to understand their own narrative in terms of the stories of Jesus because the Church has taught in so many times and places that same-sex desire is bad, idolatrous, unnatural, sick, or something else that deserves to be condemned as impure.  Those negative teachings about same-sex desire have now been debunked biblically, philosophically, psychologically, anthropologically, medically and in every other way except in the disgust reactions of some people who have been brought up poorly.  But it is time for people whose deepest identity includes same-sex desire to be able to find their story in the story of Jesus.  For the Church not to offer this is for it to deny the full humanity of gay men and women, and all others whom it puts off with bigotry.

So I want to speak about the part of Jesus’ story that has to do with his boyfriend, the Beloved Disciple.  Of course we know very little for sure about Jesus’ sex life, or about the sex life of most of the other characters in the New Testament, for that matter.  But I bet there is not a person here who by the age of ten had not wondered about Jesus snuggling on the dinner couch with the man called the Beloved Disciple.  When I was growing up, this was not talked about, and the Beloved Disciple was mentioned only as the traditional author of the Gospel of John because of the remark in the last of the texts I read that he wrote down a lot about Jesus. The tradition of authorship is no longer viable among scholars even though it lingers in the iconography that represents the author of John as young, beardless, and attractive, as in the Marsh Chapel statues, a resonance with the part of the story of the Beloved Disciple reclining on the breast of Jesus.

We don’t really know who the Beloved Disciple was.  Obviously not Peter because they are often depicted together.  The other major disciples such as James and John, Andrew, Philip, and Thomas are referred to in John’s gospel and likely would have been named as the Beloved Disciple if they fit because they were important in the later Church. People have speculated about Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Lazarus, and the young man in Mark’s gospel who flees arrest naked, but we just do not know.

But we do know some things about the Beloved Disciple if not his name.  First of all, he was accepted by the inner circle of disciples as Jesus’ special friend.  They accepted his position with Jesus on the dinner couch and in fact looked to him for pillow-talk information about Jesus, as in the incident of Peter asking about the identity of the betrayer. The disciples were not homophobic.  Second, the Beloved Disciple did not compete with the others for leadership in the community, as James and John, and Jesus’ brother James, did with Peter.  Peter was the acknowledged head disciple and the Beloved Disciple showed no interest in a leadership role.  Third, the Beloved Disciple was on good terms with Peter and they did things together; this suggests to some that the Beloved was Peter’s brother Andrew, but you would think he would be so named.  Fourth, the Beloved Disciple was not a source of any special doctrine speaking for Jesus, did not ask famous leading questions like several other disciples did, and was not mentioned at great revelatory moments such as the Transfiguration (which is not recounted in John’s gospel, the only gospel that mentions the Beloved disciple), in the dialogue of the Farewell Discourse, or Thomas’ post-resurrection confession. He may have been there but was not mentioned.  It seems that the only role the Beloved Disciple played in the gospel story was to be the one Jesus loved in a special way, his boyfriend.

What do we learn from our four texts?  In the first, the identification of the betrayer, the most obvious lesson is the intimacy of the Beloved, reclining on Jesus’ chest, leaning forward to talk with Peter, then falling back on Jesus to ask him about the betrayer.  Jesus does not answer directly but says, “Watch what I do—it’s the one I feed.”  The Beloved obviously did not relay the message to Peter, or Peter would have stopped Judas from leaving.  The text has another message as well.  Judas the betrayer is within a hand’s reach of Jesus, surely at the next couch, when Jesus feeds him.  The point is that the people close to you, perhaps closest, can be betrayers.  But the Beloved is with Jesus all the way, closer than Judas, and closer than all the other disciples who will abandon Jesus when he is arrested.  The point for a marriage homily is that you two should be closer to each other than to all the others in your respective public careers with their ups and downs, successes and disappointments, colleagues and betrayers.  And you can talk with one another about all these hopes and despairs, jealousies and pettiness.  Think of yourselves as reclining on one another, leaning forward to engage the public world, and then leaning back to take stock together.

The second text is the crucifixion scene.  The Beloved Disciple is at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother and aunt and with Mary Magdalene.  No other male disciple is around.  Jesus sees him and, most remarkably, tells the Beloved Disciple to take Jesus’ mother as his own, and tells his mother to take his Beloved as her son; she moves in with the Beloved Disciple from that day on.  What is remarkable is that Jesus had plenty of brothers, and also sisters, and at least one aunt, who could take care of his mother, all as part of the natural extension of his family.  But he creates a new, non-kinship, family for his mother and Beloved.  It’s as if Jesus and the Beloved were married and, with Jesus’ death, the Beloved takes over the responsibility for the mother-in-law.  Jesus was the first son, and so care-taking responsibility for the parental generation falls on his spousal family; the Beloved Disciple takes up that role when Jesus gives it to him.  The first century was a long time before Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage.  But if there were an analogue for a same-sex marriage in Jesus’ time, one major test of its solidity would be acceptance of responsibility for in-laws.  The point here for a marriage homily is that you two are adopting each other’s respective families into your own new and fragile one.  The other side of this point is that the in-laws accept your family by coming into it.  The point is unremarkable for heterosexual marriages, a commonplace even though it is difficult to live up to even there; you know the jokes about in-laws. The public validity of same-sex marriages finds its strength in intergenerational acceptance and support.

The third text is about the Beloved Disciple and Peter running to the tomb after Mary Magdalene had told them it was empty.  The Beloved races ahead, doubtless frantic with worry and confusion, but he cannot bring himself to look for his lover’s bloodied body.  Take-charge Peter goes right in and says the body is not there and everything is cleaned up so the Beloved can finally go in. This gives some clue as to what the Beloved Disciple must have been feeling, watching his lover be arrested, tried, whipped, and crucified, writhing against the nails and dying finally by suffocation.  Grief, rage, hurt, panic, helplessness, helplessness, helplessness.  I pray that neither of you will ever have to watch the other suffer grievously.  But if you do, know that it’s ok to feel grief, rage, hurt, panic, helplessness, and not have to be in charge.  That’s how Jesus’ Beloved felt about him and if it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for you.  You do not have to be strong, only unfailing in the love that clings to the breast.  Another marriage homily point.

The final text is from the resurrection story of the Last Breakfast.  The Beloved Disciple is offshore with the others on the fishing boat when he recognizes Jesus as the man who had been giving them instructions about casting their net.  After fixing them breakfast, Jesus goes off with Simon Peter to reinforce his love and to give him instructions about leading Jesus’ community.  The Beloved Disciple is walking behind, just out of earshot.  The text specifically reminds us that the Beloved Disciple is the one who ate reclining on Jesus whom Peter asked about the betrayer. Peter asks Jesus, “What about him?”  Jesus answers three things.  First, that it is Jesus’ will that the Beloved remain until Jesus comes again.  Second, that this matter is no business of Peter’s.  And third that Peter should follow Jesus and attend to his own public ministry.  When this was reported later on, some people in the community thought that Jesus would guarantee that the Beloved Disciple not die until he returned, but obviously he did.  Jesus only said that it was his will that the Beloved Disciple not die, meaning presumably that he wanted to continue their special relation upon his return.  Surely that is what Jesus would be expected to hope for his Beloved, but who knows what will happen?  The point here for a marriage homily is that your marriage in the last analysis is a private matter and at some point you might have to tell others to back off.  Of course a marriage is also a public legal arrangement, witness this ceremony.  We invoke a community to support your marriage.  It extends out into a much larger set of families.  You two will function as a couple in many contexts relevant to your careers.  The line between the public and private in a marriage is ambiguous and sometimes tense to draw.  But in this final scene of Jesus’ story, when he charges Peter to invent the Church to feed all those people hungry for love and God, Jesus’ last words were to remind Peter that what Jesus and the Beloved Disciple had going between them was their own affair.  According to John’s Gospel, Jesus’ last words were about his special Beloved, whom we may call his spouse.  This is my last homiletical point about marriage.

In matters of sex, love, and marriage, let me affirm as a priest of the Church that you can find your story, the story of your heart’s desires, the story of your union together, in the story of Jesus.  All those who would deny you his story, let them be anathema!  May Jesus’ love of his Beloved be a song in your hearts all your days!  Amen

 

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Birdsong

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Matthew 2: 1-2

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Frontispiece

The gospel is the beauty of a bird in song.

 

We begin.  As J Edwards said, ‘Resolved:  to do nothing I would be afraid to do in the last hour of my life.’

 

I don’t believe I quite heard or overheard your seasonal resolution(s).

 

You still may be hunting, searching.

 

The gospel is the gift of the Christ child to us, God’s gift of faith, of fellowship, of freedom—beyond thought and beyond intuition and beyond demolition.  If God is for you, who is against?  The gospel also is our gift to the Christ child.  Odd, no?  The gospel heard and spoken and lived is our gift to Christ, like the story which Matthew narrates, Mt 2, is his gift to wordflesh.

 

Search and hunt they did, these wise men.  The very presence of the wise at the outset of the gospel is the rejection of fundamentalism near and far.  Swinging like an angel sword before the garden of Eden, here come the magi, making sure that any gospel worthy of the name fears nothing human, fears nothing known or knowable, fears nothing true.  Biblicism be gone, say the kings.  Their presence is the celebration of the liberal gospel, the gospel of liberality, your birthright, Marsh Chapel.  The gospel (not that there is any other) that honors what we know, while admitting what we do not.  The gospel that remembers our history, including its horrors.  The gospel that eschews easy measures of the divine, which by definition is un-measurable.  The gospel that has arms big enough to embrace the big bang, and evolution, and real random chance, and the unknowable God in whose love, alone, we are at all known.  To be good news, the gospel must be true, all truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  Otherwise it is not good, and not news.  Searching can exhaust the searcher, star at night, out to the east, following forever.  Truth. Science. History. Psychology.

 

Our five grandchildren and their overseers visited us at Christmas.  The oldest is five, leader of the pack.  I heard them playing hide and seek.  She taught them a song, a birdsong.  When they ran out of hunting energy, and were stumped, humans at the edge of knowledge, ministers at the edge of energy, she would call out, in song, ‘can you give a little tweet-tweet?’ And repeat, and repeat.  Then, from under the bed, would come the birdsong response, ‘tweet, tweet’. The gospel is not only the Christ gift.  The gospel is our gift to the Christ.

 

 

1. Gold

The gospel is our spoken gift of faith.

 

Every bird sings faith, over the globe, through all time.  Thurman loved penguins, odd and remote.  Listen.  Along the Charles, in the spring, make way for goslings and ducklings.   Mid-island in Bermuda, I hear the song:   Early in the summer mornings, out in the land currently under the death cloud of possible fracking, where we live, at dawn a rooster.  Two eagles—they too mate for life, as in Christian marriage—soaring, I only imagine their music.  The owl at night.  A swan song, a silver swan, who living had no note.  The gospel is a bird in song, and all nature sings.  Even if or when the preaching of the gospel by human imperfection abates, as it does threaten to do, birdsong will carry the tune.

 

Just as there are so many, sorry, reasons to skip church, so too there are many, sorry, reasons, in the space of 4000 earthly Sundays, to skip faith.  Faith is only real gold, real faith, when it is all you have to go on.

 

The first of December was covered with snow.  The next line?  Good night you moon light ladies.  Rock a by sweet baby James.  The next line?  Can you give me a little tweet tweet?

 

Ignatius would love the star, but Luther would mark the voice, the sound, the birdsong of searching, inquiring, wise, questing, serious, real faith: ‘Where is he, who has been born king of the Jews?’

 

The first to find Him are not Jews at all.  Gentiles, they.  Some of our most natural gospel hearers and speakers today are atheists.

 

Matthew, though usually (mis) understood otherwise, is a Gentile gospel.  The magi come first. Light centrally shines, chapter by chapter. The book is written in Greek.  Its mound sermon celebrates greek wisdom and greek discipline. The wise man built his house on rock.  A ruler’s daughter is healed.  The Sabbath is overrated.   The only sign the natives deserve is that of Jonah.  The disciples dish traditions of elders.   The greatest faith is the gentile woman willing to take the dog crumbs that the table guests despise.  The faithful followers will judge the 12 tribes.  And, by the way, make sure to render your taxes to Caesar. (J). Matthew’s endless explanation of kosher requirements is made for greek ears.  I will not even pause to recite the damnation of woe given to scribes and Pharisees.   Its concluding universalism would make Plato blush.  Matthew?  Jewish?

 

2. Frankincense

We begin.  As J Edwards said, ‘Resolved:  to do nothing I would be afraid to do in the last hour of my life.’

 

I don’t believe I quite heard or overheard your seasonal resolution(s).

There are no free-lance Christians.  If nothing else, for sure, the child the wise visit makes space in life for real fellowship.  The church is a working fellowship.

 

Isaiah foretold it.  Here in third Isaiah, who remembers the birdsong of second Isaiah, and carries the tune back into Jerusalem, after the return from exile, after 538, when another wise Persian, Cyrus, set the people free.  The birth of the Christ, by symbol of gold and frankincense, is connected to a universal liberation.

 

We are here to ring the bell, to sing the song, to sound the trumpet, to lift the voice.  You may need, this week, to see the examples in salt and light, of faithful people. Here are some in these Marsh pews.  Kind people.  Kind women.  Kind men.  Doing unto others, as they would have done to themselves.  Seeking.  Seeking lasting wisdom.

 

With joy.  Come on MLK Sunday, and hear our friend Dr Fluker, and on Monday and celebrate the King of Marsh Plaza.  Come February 9 (our usual Ground Hog festival, date and place moved) and ice skate on Marsh Plaza.  Come and sing hymns in the Lynn home of Alice and Yrjo—a midwinter delight!  Come for brunch and the marathon on Patriots day, to our home.

 

Resolve this, 2013:  I will be in church on Sunday.  Wise men still seek Him.  You find faith in fellowship, and vice versa.

 

St. John of the Cross: En una noche oscura…

 

At Marsh we minimize meetings, committees, structures, organization.  We find our fellowship, across the University, as above.  We take our education in the University.  We partner in service with our schools and colleges of the University.  We refuse to sit on a whale and fish for minnows.  Come and join us!  It is a great way to give, to live, to give and live, the gospel.

 

Here gay people are people.  Here lay people are people.  The eight words Methodism will need for survival:  gay people are people, lay people are people.  I refer you to the sermon coming January 27, 2013.

 

 

3. Myrrh

 

We begin.  As J Edwards said, ‘Resolved:  to do nothing I would be afraid to do in the last hour of my life.’

 

I don’t believe I quite heard or overheard your seasonal resolution(s).

 

Resolve, 2013:  to leave behind debt and regret.

 

On January 1, 1863, here in Boston, at the Boston Music Hall, F Douglass and many others sang.  The Handel and Haydn society sang.  One of their members, Harriet Beecher Stowe, sang.  Why their birdsong, good news of great joy? In the cradle of liberty?  Emancipation.  Real change is real hard, but change does come.  Lincoln said (12/62): ‘The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present’

 

Stowe wrote:  he is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave…

Regret is the shortest definition I know of hell.  Let your regrets be few.  Prize your time, your body, your heart.  ‘To thine own self be true’ (that’s Shakespeare by the way, not the Bible).  Let us leave behind the regret of gun violence, the regret of dehumanization of gays, the regret of environmental predation, the regret of children in poverty, the regret of unruly rouge nations, the regret of selfish living. Let your freedom be not only the freedom of the will, but the freeing of the will, to love.

 

Debt is the surest measure I know of hell.  Debt is an actuarial prison.  ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ (again, Uncle Will, not the Holy Book).  An undergraduate degree is a wonderful thing, but not worth a mountain of lasting debt.  Travel light, cloak and staff.  Go where they will pay you to study, if you can. (J)

 

Yes, I am concerned about national debt.  I am.  A $4T budge with $3T income—this does not compute.  Even churches balance their budgets (I have 35 Decembers of fist fights, I mean finance meetings, to show).  Debt is a bad gift to grandchildren.  But I am even more concerned about your personal debt.    Lord forgive us our debts!

 

Get rid of your debt.  Get rid of your regret.  This year.

 

Find the freedom to live in love.

 

You are hiding out there.  I know you are.  I am hunting for you.  You are out there.  In a Beacon St. apartment. Up on the north shore.  Munching bagels on the Cape. Out in Newton, enjoying the Marsh Choir.  I have been searching for you, for six years.  Against the fierce New England wind of post Christian secularism, righteous anti religious fervor, mixtures of bad Calvinism or Catholicism, Sunday hockey, and a kind of intellectual life that is always just a bit short–of wonder, mystery, and magi wisdom.  I am hunting for you.  But I don’t find you yet. I search,but you are too well hidden.

 

CAN YOU GIVE YOU ME A LITTLE TWEET TWEET?

 

Congregation? Clergy? Choir? Radio?

 

CAN YOU GIVE YOU ME A LITTLE TWEET TWEET?

 

 

Coda

 

The father of neo Biblicism, Karl Barth, said:  ‘the gospel is the freedom of a bird in flight.’

 

We sing it this way, in our faith and our fellowship and our freedom:

 

The gospel is the beauty of a bird in song.

 

The gospel is the beauty of a bird in song.

 

The gospel is birdsong.

 

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