Archive for February, 2013

My Joy and Crown

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

Luke 9:28-43a

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The Gospel from Luke for this second Sunday of Lent might strike you as a little odd, perhaps even disjointed. What does transfiguration have to do with an exorcism? Both the congregation and, I will admit, the preacher might have preferred that this excerpt from the 9th chapter of Luke stop with verse 36, before we get to the part with that lovely quote from Jesus that more often finds itself redacted and deployed as a slogan in hate speech or internet trolling than engaged with in any meaningful way. But, so it goes; the verses march on after verse 36. And, in a way, it is helpful from time to time to read a slightly messier lectionary reading, because it reminds us that this is how the Gospels are constructed. The authors of our gospels were compiling the stories and traditions of Jesus and His Disciples, and if you sit down to read the middle chapters in the synoptic gospels, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, you will find little phrases to string together various parts of the Jesus tradition to create a sequential strand of parables and miracles, teaching and preaching. The Gospel writers concerned themselves with a message to a 1st-century audience, not with satisfying a 21st century continuity check. My favorite example of this is the Gospel of Mark; Jesus crosses the lake so often it looks as though the disciples are running a ferry service.  It is well worth the hour or two it takes to sit down and read one of the Synoptics in a single sitting, to pay attention to the beautiful patchwork-quilting process that is the Gospel.

This week, our gospel reading from Luke frames two small patches of the quilt, a transfiguration and an exorcism. One day, the disciples are witness to the greatest heights of humanity’s encounter with the divine; they see the possibilities of the better angels of our nature. The very next, they bumble their way through the ministerial trenches; in fear of the messiness of sin and illness, they fall away from the grace which first overtook them. There are two stories, two days,  two lessons to our Gospel this morning. The first is familiar, stirring, enchanting: the blossoming of faith, the transcendent beauty of assurance. Faith is the Joy of the Lord and the Church.  We love when individuals are overtaken by faith. The second is strange, discomfiting, bracing: the growth of faith, the hard work of sanctification. Discipleship is the Crown of Faith and the Church. We long for individuals to become disciples, just as we long for the transformation of the church, the one body, to the body of Christ’s glory.

Faith is a deeply personal transformative experience that is often fostered in the midst of community. You hear a word over the radio that touches something deep inside the very fiber of your being. You hear a word which speaks to where you are in your life. You close your eyes and let the forte waves of a choir wash over you. You hear some music that awakens some feeling in you. You have a deeply meaningful conversation, you feel safe enough to ask someone you trust the difficult questions, and you feel a sense of peace deep within your soul.  You find your heart strangely warmed, you come to kneel at the altar rail, you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and savior. Different denominations, local churches, and worship styles have diverse ways of fostering the sort of atmosphere through which God’s grace can flow. But the electricity of God’s grace is able to be conducted through a number of materials, and the result is faith awakened in the soul.

It is important at the outset of Lent to hear a word about faith, about assurance, about presence, about the personal experience of the divine. You heard such a word last week from Dean Hill. It is important to begin Lent with a shoring up of faith, an experience of beauty, learning, comfort, assurance. It nourishes us, it can sustain us for the forty days of reflection and fasting to come. But after worship on Sunday, after the first few days of Lent, after the first few moments of faith, comes the question, “What comes next?”  What about Monday morning? What about the rest of Lent? What about the rest of life?

A preschool put on a production of the Ugly Duckling, the beloved Hans Christian Andersen tale. It combined the best parts of early childhood education: group singing, moving on and off stage in a straight line, a moral lesson, and of course, a crafts project. Each child would make her own set of wings, with help, of course. Cutting with safety scissors, using an Elmer’s glue bottle, carefully attaching feathers, and filling in the gaps with marker. It was the ideal craft for a small child, messy and fascinating. Almost all the children used bright yellow; Big Bird-color feathers and a sunny yellow marker. These were the ducklings. One boy and one girl, though, were selected to be the ugly ducklings in the production. They had the same work to do as the other children: cutting, gluing, attaching, coloring. Their feathers were a dull grey-brown, the name of their Crayola marker was more optimistic than it looked: “golden beige.” But they had to put in twice as much work as their classmates; they had the rare preschool homework assignment. Each had to make a whole second pair of wings, to cut, glue, attach, and color all over again. It took forever, but this time, there was glitter, whole tubes of silver and gold glitter and bright, iridescent feathers. Twice the work, to be sure, but this little boy and little girl got to do a quick costume change during the production, to exchange their wings to become swans.

Don’t we all want to be swans? Don’t we all want a chance to exchange our wings? To put down the burdensome wings of our sin, shame, our old lives? Faith means we get to put down the old wings of our lives, to start over again, to molt the old feathers. And that is beautiful, saving grace, that we get a costume change in life. But something happens after that. To put on new wings, to molt, we need to cut, glue, attach, and glitter that new set of wings. We don’t do it alone. We do it by the grace of God and with the support of a community of faith, but we still have homework to do.  We have help, but we need to make that second set of wings.

In Methodist circles and beyond we often talk about John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience. Wesley’s journal entries record the moment, and his words have been edited to a catchphrase of sorts for the conversion experience. I’m sure you know, that evening May 24, 1738 when John Wesley felt “his heart strangely warmed.” The phrase is a darling of the theological left and the right, it is beloved as his conversion moment. We really focus on it. On May 24, 1738, John Wesley went to a meeting, and on hearing Luther’s Preface to the Epistle on the Romans, he felt his heart strangely warmed.

What happened the next day? What did John Wesley do when he when he went home that evening? What about when he woke up the next morning? Wesley writes that he went home that evening to pray, but soon felt the nagging question in his head, “This cannot be faith; for where is the joy?” He continued to pray late into the night. The next morning, he woke up, went to church, and sang a hymn. Again, another nagging question.  He writes, “If thou dost believe, why is there not a more sensible change? I answered, “That I know not. But, this I know, I have ‘now peace with God.’ And I sin not today, and Jesus my Master has forbidden me to take thought for the morrow.” The next journal entry comes over a week later, June 7, when John writes that he has decided to go to Germany, to spend some time with the Moravians.  He writes the following, “And I hoped the conversing with those holy men who were themselves living witnesses of the full power of faith, and yet able to bear with those that are weak, would be a means, under God, of so establishing my soul that I might go on from faith to faith, and from ‘strength to strength.’”

John Wesley’s Aldersgate moment, his coming to a deeper and truer sense of his own faith, his conversion moment did not mean that he never doubted again. It did not mean that he woke up a saint the next day, and it certainly did not mean that his work as a Christian was done because he had felt assurance. He had to wake up the next day and take the next step. Faith began the hard work, faith empowered him for the hard work, the cutting and gluing and pasting of the wings of his new life. After Aldersgate John Wesley continued to pray, he went to church, he sang hymns, and he went and found others to accompany him on the journey of “establishing his soul.” Wesley had begun the process of sanctification. Soon he would be establishing Sunday school s so poor children could learn to read, soon he would be preaching to crowds in the field, soon he would be riding all over the countryside, establishing meetings, working with the urban poor. These were the next steps in John’s lifelong process of growing in faith and faithfulness. And this is what the Lenten journey is all about. Lent is a time of fasting, remembrance, and hopefully, growth. Lent is about the long life-process of faith, it is about the next day, the next step.

Far too often in the church we act like a bunch of normal looking ducklings. We don’t own up to our status as ugly ducklings, we don’t concern ourselves with the work of cutting, gluing, pasting, and glittering our new wings. On the theological right, we demand that all ducklings must look alike to be real ducklings. Our faith cannot be genuine unless we meet certain the ideological litmus tests about certain social issues, unless we have a very particular conversion experience, unless we offer a convincing testimony of that conversion. We peck at ducklings that don’t look like we do, who don’t fall into perfect line with all the other ducklings. Our feathers get ruffled too easily. We don’t connect our concern for personal piety with a continued dedication to our social holiness. We content ourselves with one set of wings, because we don’t put in the work to make a new pair.

On the theological left, we pretend our own feathers will never molt, that we will maintain the same, idealistic adorable yellow fluff for the duration of our worship, avoiding difficult topics such as sin or evil. We think our faith is enough because we offer a moving experience through our music, our worship, our preaching, because we have the “right” experience. Or, we set out in a cute duckling line to save the world before receiving our police escort, a la Make Way For Ducklings back to our ecclesiastical island in the middle of the Public Garden. We peck at ducklings that don’t look like we do, who don’t fall into perfect line with all the other ducklings. Our feathers get ruffled too easily. We don’t connect our concern for social holiness with a continued dedication to our personal piety. We content ourselves with one set of wings, because we don’t put in the work to make a new pair.

If there was one theological doctrine that John Wesley caught the most flack for, it was Christian perfection. John Wesley believed so much in the continued process of growth, healing, and restoration in our lives of faith.  He believed that God, working in us, could truly “take away our bent to sinning,” as his brother’s hymn phrases it. In critiquing this doctrine, people focus too much on the telos, the goal, on the perfection. Wesley never claimed to get there himself, but he really emphasized the life-long journey of sainthood, of working hard to become just a little more holy every day. That is the discipline of the Christian life.

Discipline. Disciple. Both words come from the Latin discipulus which originally, before it gets caught up in Christian Latin, refers to a student. Someone who follows a teacher, learns from them, imitates them. When we are called to be and to make disciples, we are called to be and make students, life-long students of Christ.  You may come to Marsh Chapel or tune in on the radio because you like the preaching or the fellowship or the music, and those are all good and true things. But I imagine that there is something also drawing you to a community of faith grounded in a place of learning, Boston University. There is something invigorating, enlivening, transforming about working with, worshipping among, and listening to college students. Maybe it reminds you of your own student days, maybe it connects you to a child or grandchild you have in college. Beloved, whether you are a freshman or coming up on your 50th high school reunion, your student days are not behind you! You are called to be a life-long student of Christ, to continue to learn and grow in faith and wisdom, and to participate in the learning community that is the Church.

It’s a little ironic, to be sure, but the very best description I have ever encountered for our sanctification comes not from John or Charles or any one of the Wesleys, but from a Baptist preacher and teacher, a lifelong student, the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman. The Rev. Dr. Robin Olson used this quote as the focus of our Marsh Chapel winter reading retreat, and I just could not get it out of my head. In The Inward Journey, Howard Thurman writes,

“There must be always remaining in the individual life some place for the singing of angels-some place for that which in itself is breathlessly beautiful and by an inherent prerogative, throwing all the rest of life into a new and creative relatedness-something that gathers up in itself all the freshets of experience from drab and commonplace areas of living and glows in one bright light of penetrating beauty and meaning-then passes. The commonplace is shot through with new glory-old burdens become lighter, deep and ancient wounds lose much of their old, old hurting. A crown is placed over our heads that for the rest of our lives we are trying to grow tall enough to wear. Despite all the crassness of life, despite all the hardness of life, despite all the harsh discords of life, life is saved by the singing of angels.”

A crown is placed over our heads that for the rest of our lives we are trying to grow tall enough to wear. We must always open ourselves for the transcendent – the singing of angels.  But those moments pass, and then we have some growing to do to reach for that crown.

This Lent, stand up a little straighter. Try for a little more discipline in your life, with your money, your choices, your consumption. Grow a little taller. Pray a bit more, imitate someone whose example you admire, find a spiritual accountability buddy, an accountabilabuddy. Reach for that crown. What is that next step in your faith life? Where is your spiritual comfort zone, and how can you get out of it? Try having a chat with someone outside your age bracket after church today. What is their vision for the Church, for Marsh Chapel, for the life of faith? Begin to trace out for yourself a new pair of wings.

I am increasingly convinced that people come to faith, they shadow the walls of our churches, they tune in and sit up, when they see sanctification being modeled. There have been plenty of Christian experiments focusing on justification, on the come to Jesus moment. I am convinced that we are not being honest with people about what it means to be a Christian unless we are telling them about what comes next, unless we are modeling what comes next through our own discipleship, our own process of sanctification. What is the next step for you as a disciple? What is the next step for Marsh Chapel’s discipleship? How are we cutting, gluing, pasting, and glittering our way to greater holiness, to help create the sort of wings that can bear people up so that they are not dashed against the stones of life?

People come to faith when they see a community that models sanctification.  This is not an excuse to be holier than thou, but it is, I believe, a truer invitation to a lasting relationship. Beloved, how are we continuing to learn together as a community of faith, as disciples? How are we, as the body of Christ, being conformed to the body of His glory? This Lent, beloved, may we take those next steps toward discipleship, toward holiness in our lives. When we do, both on the mountaintop and back in the messiness of the city we will be astounded by the greatness of God.

Amen.

~Rev. Jennifer Quigley, Chapel Associate for Vocational Discernment

 

Abide in the Shadow

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Romans 10

Luke 13

Psalm 31

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Frontispiece

 

There come wintery episodes in the course of a snow battered lifetime that place us deep in the shadows.   If the shadow is dark enough, we may not feel able to move forward, for our foresight and insight and eyesight are so limited.  We may become frozen, snowed in.

 

You may have known this condition—of confusion or disorientation or ennui or acedia.  You may know it still.  The death of a loved one can bring such a feeling.  The loss of a position or job can bring such a feeling.  The recognition of a major life mistake can bring such a feeling.  The recollection of a past loss can bring such a feeling.  The disappearance of a once radiant affection, or love, for a person or a cause or an institution can bring such a feeling.  The senselessness of violence inflicted on the innocent can bring such a feeling.

 

(Over the years I have grown frustrated by my own mother tongue in various ways.  English places such a fence between thought and feeling, when real thought is almost always deeply felt, and real feeling is almost always keenly thought.  We need another word like thoughtfeeling or feltthought. When C Wesley sang ‘unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, learning and holiness combined, and truth and love let us all see’ he described something so bone marrow close to my own life, happiness, hope, ministry, faith.  And he also I think was wrestling with the limits of our beautiful language.  Anyway, you by nature and discipline live the thoughtfeeling gospel, and for that I am lastingly thankful.)

 

Be it then thought or feeling or thoughtfeeling, there do come episodes, all in a lifetime, that place us, if not in the dark, at least well into the shadows.  You may have known all about this at one time.  You may know it still.

 

Come Sunday, some snippet of song, or verse, or preachment, or prayer, it may be, will touch you as you meander about in the dim shadow twilight.  Hold onto that snippet.  Follow its contours along the cave of darkness in which you now move.  Let the snippet—song, verse, sermon, prayer—let it guide you along.  So you may be able to murmur: ‘I can do this…I can make my way…I can find a handhold or foothold…I can abide in this shadow…For now I can abide here…I can make it for now, at least for now, for the time being.’

 

This Lent we shall await a word about war and peace, about drones and defense, about our beloved country in this year of our Lord.  We will rightly desire a word of interpretation about a passage in Scripture—Old Testament, Gen. 22, or Epistle, Rom 10. or Gospel, Luke 4.   This Lent we will rightly desire a communication about how to live, in discipline and obedience and faith, during a time of penitence and preparation and we will want a word from our Lenten conversation partner Marilynn Robinson.  All in due time.  Today , first, though, the word, near to us, on our lips and in our heart, is a word of faith, the given courage to abide in the shadow. Health is such a word, and very salvation, for those who are stumbling a bit and stumbling about in the dark today.  On this plea for faith all our other attentions depend.  So says the 91 Psalm.

 

Today the psalmist lifts a hymn of faith, a song of courage in the face of adversity.  He speaks from his experience.  He teaches, like a grandfather teaching a grandson.  Spinning a fishing fly.  Boiling the sap down in the sugar house.  Watching a basketball game.  Watching the sun set.

 

Given the wintery snares, cold air illness, icy night terrors, and snow bound disease, noonday destruction, evil, scourge, wild beasts of this very day, it could be that a sober reading of the 91st psalm, a trusting hymn of a faithful heart, will sustain us this morning.  In this psalm we are promised divine deliverance in five ways…So…

1. Deliverance from snares…

Our singer is a person of simple faith.  He has one, and only one, word for us:  You are covered.  Abide in the shadow.

We could make many complaints about this hymn and its singer.  He has a dangerously simple view of evil, especially for the complexity of a post-modern world.  He has a way of implying that trust, or belief, are rewarded with safety, a notion that Jesus in Luke 13 scornfully dismisses, and we know to be untrue.  He has an appalling lack of interest in the scores of others, other than you, who fall by the wayside.  He seems to celebrate a foreordained, foreknown providence that ill fits our sense of the openness of God to the future, and the open freedom God has given us for the future.  He makes dramatic and outlandish promises not about what might happen, but about what will be.  As a thinking theologian, this psalmist of psalm 91 fails.  He fails us in our need to rely on something sounder and truer than blind faith.  He seems to us to be whistling past the graveyard.

And yet… for those who have walked past a February graveyard or two, for those who have walked the valley of the shadow of death, for a country at war for a decade now, for a world searching to match its ideals of peace with its realities of hatred, for you today if you are in trouble, and who are worried today about others and other graves and other yards, and who have seen the hidden traps, unforeseeable dangers, and steel jawed snares of life, there is something encouraging about this simple song:  “he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler”.

2. Deliverance from illness…

Our writer is not a philosopher.  He is a musician, perhaps, but not a systematic thinker.  He has one interest:  getting by, getting through, getting out, and getting home.  So he does not worry about the small stuff.  In fact, I have a sense that the psalmist is desperate.  His song is one for that point on the road when you just have to go ahead and risk and jump.  You have made your assessment, you have made your plan, you have made your study, then you have prayed.  Yet you see all the pestilence about you in homes and institutions and nations, so you wonder, is it worth the risk?  You are not sure.

This hymn of the heart is one you sing when you are not sure, but you are confident.  Not certain, but confident.  You can be confident without being certain.  In fact, a genuine honest confidence includes the confidence to admit you are not sure.  Faith means risk.  Isn’t that part of what we mean by faith?  Our writer is at that point, the point of decision.  Once you are there, you have to choose between walking forward and slinking away.  It becomes very simple.  Either God lives or not.  Either God is in Christ or not.  Either God in Christ touches us by Spirit or not.  Either we move forward in faith, or not.  Choose.  And the Psalmist wants his student or grandson or parishioner to choose in faith.  So he urges:  abide in the shadow of the Almighty … “He will deliver you from the deadly pestilence.”

3. Deliverance from night terror…

Our psalmist is speaking just here to our immediate need.  Fear not the terror of the night.  Go about your discipleship:  pray, study, learn, make peace, love your neighbor, agree to disagree agreeably, every one be convinced in his own mind.  The night is not as terrifying as you fear…”You will not fear the terror of the night”.

4.  Deliverance from noonday destruction…

It is in the heart of the Psalm that one senses the singer’s desperation.  There is an irrational side to his message.  ‘Thousands will fall but you will be spared.’  It will not help us to ask about the ethics of this promise.  Nor will it help us to question the sense of destiny involved here.  I hear this psalm in another way.  I hear it as a father’s prayer, or a mother’s dearest hope.  I cannot help but think that this psalm perfectly captures the hope, the visceral hope, which this decade has been on the minds of our own parents of soldiers and sailors.  Noonday destruction will not come near you.  I pray that noonday destruction will not come near you.

I remember a Day Care center where I used to see notes pinned to the coats and sweaters of daycare toddlers.   This psalm is a note pinned to the shirt of a loved one heading into danger.  When there is nothing else we can give our daughters and sons we want them to have faith.  Faith to go forward, bravely, without being sure of what they will find at noonday.  And we are passionately desperate for one hope: that they will come home.  And we sing the song without any chords of doubt, because we want to admit none.  We make no uncertain sound because we want our beloved to carry no worry, but to be armed with the confidence of the Lord.  This is a battle hymn.  It is the kind of song you sing to yourself when all about you there is mayhem.  If I were a chaplain it is the kind of psalm I might give to a soldier to memorize by day and recite by night in the face of mayhem.  “You will not fear the destruction that wastes at noonday.”

5.  Deliverance from evil…

The teacher implores his student to make God his place of dwelling, his home.  To rest in God, so that all else is secondary.  Evil will not befall, or at least will not define, such an one.  How can someone escape all evil?  We know better.  We know that evil touches us all.  But this misses the meaning of the poem.  The writer is praying!  In the same way we pray, every Sunday.  Deliver him from evil!  Not from some, or most, almost all evil, but from evil!  Religion is a matter of the heart before it is a matter of the head.  As Wesley said, the mind is the bit and bridle, but the heart is the great horse, the mighty steed of faith.  “He will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways.  On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”

Coda:  “I will deliver him…”

Deliverance from snares, illness, terror, destruction, and evil.

Our psalm ends, as does this sermon, at the edge of a remarkable announcement.  Like lightening flashing over a darkened sky, or like a burst of sunlight separating clouds, the voice of the poem shifts.  God speaks directly to the human heart.  It is a shift devoutly to be desired.  All of the speaking, from teacher to student and grandfather to grandson, all of the instructional lines are now interrupted, and on a grand scale, and on a profound scale.  Like Yahweh addressing Job, the psalm ends with a divine word.  It is a shift, yes, devoutly to be desired.  It is what we hope will happen with every one of our children.  It is what we hope will happen in every one of our worship services.  Frankly, it is what we hope will happen in every sermon.  All the rest gives way to…God.  Now the fumbling voice of the teacher is replaced by a divine voice. Now the Lord speaks in the first person, and his word is a lasting joy:  “I will deliver him…I will protect him…I will answer him…I will be with him…I will rescue him…I will honor him”

When we have nothing else to go on, there is something irreducibly solid, something strong and good—the divine voice in the faith of Christ—to which we may cleave and cling.  Finally, this is what brings you to the pew and me to the pulpit and us to the church, the hope that something may be said and heard that is divine, saving, satisfying and true.  In the silence that follows all our speaking, like the priestly verses that follow the human voice in this psalm, we may hear something that changes everything.  So Charles Wesley, as ever, in perfect pitch:

Let us plead for faith alone

Faith which by our works is shown

God it is who justifies

Only faith the grace supplies

Active faith that lives within

Conquers hell and death and sin

Hallows whom it first made whole

Forms the Savior in the soul

 

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

 

The Bach Experience

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

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For those new to our service of worship, present here or listening from afar, we warmly offer an especial word of grace and welcome, on this blizzard weekend Sunday.  Your own church may have been closed today, and so you are listening.  Your hockey game, or neighborhood gathering, or personal commitment may have been cancelled due to weather, and so you are with us.  In other words, snow, like grace, may have interrupted or intervened or interceded into the otherwise well laid plans of life.  Good! Welcome.

 

New to all this, you may not have heard our regular dialogue sermons, come Bach Cantata Sunday.  Allow, then, a brief explanation.  Our envisioned mission at Marsh Chapel, to be a ‘heart for the heart of the city and a service in the city’, extends by radio and internet to the whole globe, the heart and service of the city of the whole earth.  We lift the praises of God with the guidance and support of JS Bach.  Why Bach?  Because Bach is the best.  Bach is world regarded as the very best.  In Europe, in Asia, in the Americas, around the globe, Bach is the best, and we want the very best for our service of worship.  Bach brings the globe together.

 

In order then to make the Holy Scriptures read for the day, and the Cantata for the day, as meaningful and accessible as possible, to as many as possible, from the 19 year old undergraduate in the third pew to the 89 year old widower listening in Scituate, Dr Jarrett and I have over several years now offered a dialogue sermon on these Cantata days, meant to merge music and word in the very Gospel, the word of God.  This form of preaching is, if not unique to our Marsh work, at least unusual and special, and in that we take great joy.  It is one gift we lay upon the altar, in heart and service.

 

Today we bring you a word of faith, a word about faith, a word in faith for those who may, like the Samaritan of old, feel themselves outside of the formal community of faith.  Faith is God’s gift to you today.

 

Yet if there are 60,000 people now listening to our radio broadcast service, 40,000, it may be, well identify with a phrase from this past week’s Washington prayer breakfast.  The speaker (President Obama) inclusively addressed those of various faith traditions, and those ‘of no faith that they can name’.  It could be that 2/3 of our listeners faithfully and honestly understand themselves as people ‘of no faith that they can name’.  Of a faith that has no name.  Is that you?

 

This past Wednesday many of us gathered, undergraduates with the Dean of the Chapel, to discuss ‘God on Campus’.  If there has been a more spirited, honest, and enjoyable conversation among 20 people recently, in this area, that would be news.  One young woman, speaking for thousands, said, ‘I just don’t have that kind of rote faith anymore’.  It could be that 2/3 of our students faithfully and honestly understand themselves as young people ‘of no faith that they can name’.  Of a faith that has no name.  Is that you?

 

Over the course of ministry in four decades, nine pulpits, one brief superintendency, one briefer presidency, and one delicious deanship (the best job anywhere by the way), various defeats and victories, and Thursday evening meetings of the cradle role committee, the greatest thrill and joy has come from those who are just outside the visible community of faith.  Prospects, constituents, the unchurched (such an uncharitable phrase)…call them neighbors.  To spend time with those just outside the bounds of religion so called is the pure joy of ministry.  It could be that 2/3 of our neighbors, from Brookline to Bar Harbor to Bangladesh, faithfully and honestly understand themselves as people ‘of no faith that they can name’.  Of a faith that has no name.  Is that you?

 

It could be that 2/3 of our actual and virtual congregation faithfully understand themselves as people ‘of no faith that they can name’.  Of a faith that has no name.  Is that you?

 

Outside Israel there lies Samaria.  Along the road from religion to life, from Jerusalem to Jericho, there lies a man in pain.  Love lifts him in the person of a person of no faith that he can name.  The hero of our cantata this Transfiguration morning, the Samaritan, later called GOOD, stands, in this passage, as a person of a faith that has no name.  In a moment, the waves of musical beauty will roll over us.  What, we may wonder, shall we hear, shall we listen for, shall we await….?

 

To the faithful, honest, prayerful agnostic, to the various goods and various Samaritans around about, we offer, in brisk and brilliant revelation, come Transfiguration, a way of thinking and feeling, a thought feeling, a felt thought, a form of faith where there is no faith.

 

Our experience of the Samaritan, as his gift of love attends us, is the faithfulness of God.  Where others profess too much and too quickly, where others believe blindly and shallowly, where others pronounce themselves holier, humbler, more religious than thou, where others rush in where angels fear to tread, behold the goodness of the northern Samaritan.  His life, in loving and giving, in knowing and loving, in giving and knowing, has become his faith, a faith that has no name. Yesterday he shoveled the widow neighbor’s walk, uncovered a neighbor student’s car, brought milk and eggs to a homebound neighbor’s kitchen, chipped ice from an elderly neighbor’s roof, included in family sledding a busy neighbor’s son.  Come blizzard weekend,  a faith with no name may be the truest faith of all.  Is that faith yours?

 

A generation ago, our dear teacher Paul Tillich called such faith the state of being ultimately concerned.  Are you deeply concerned?  Do things concern you? When we come upon a man whom bandits have stripped and beaten and left by the side of the road for dead, does your heart quicken?  You see this victim of violence, harmed by others who have since disappeared, as with wily politicians who are ‘eager to dominate but reluctant to offend’ (so, FDR, NYRB, 1/13).   Before gun violence, or unfettered drone flight, or children untutored, or wayward greed, or amoral sexuality, or steady drunkenness, or moral indiscretion—somewhere the road from religion to life, from Jerusalem to Jericho—are you concerned?  Your concern is your faith.  In deep concern you discover grace and freedom and love.  Your concern is your faith.

 

But now Tillich is long dead, and his concern may not fit twenty year olds.  In our generation, then, we might call such a state of faith the state of being ultimately connected.  Are you deeply connected?  Does life connect you to others?  When you come upon a man whom bandits have stripped and beaten and left by the side of the road for dead, does your heart quicken? When a fog surrounds you brought on the collision of the warm winds of love and frosty glacier of wrong—what?  Do you connect?  Do you text, then, or tweet, then, or post, then, or email, then, or call, then, or write, then, or visit, then?  Does the plight of another move you toward others?  Along the road then from religion to life, from Jerusalem to Jericho—are you connected?  Your connection is your faith. In your deep connection you discover grace and freedom and love.  Your connection is your faith.

 

Live your faith.  Live your faith.

 

No other God, no graven image, no name in vain

Remember Sabbath, honor father and mother

Do not kill, commit adultery, steal, witness falsely or covet

Live your faith.  Live your faith.

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind and strength.

And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself

 

As did the Samaritan….

 

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

 

Winter Grace

Sunday, February 3rd, 2013

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

 

Snow makes things slow

As R Warren wrote in her new poem: ‘a silhouette rimmed in snow-light’, we too follow Christ, our beacon not our boundary

Its tactile and visual embrace gives us a winter grace

With Jeremiah, come winter, we may pause to listen

Not to do, but to be

To listen for the divine in the word, as did the ancient prophet who labored until the fall of Jerusalem (snipped from our reading) and then some

I will touch your lips, saith the Lord, who called a young man, another young man, as would occur again, later, in Nazareth

We learned in a bucolic age, to spill water and freeze it, to shovel snow and clear it, to skate, backwards and forwards, to play, stick in hand, to learn, when Colgate finished its Reid Athletic Center that hockey could be played indoors too

An old flexible flier, veteran of the snow ice hillsides

Skiis, boots, goggles

An old black and white photograph of snow drifts above the telephone lines

Winter is the season of spirit, Summer the season of flesh

Those who taught us more by example than precept to be:

Trustworthy

Loyal

Helpful

Friendly

Courteous

Kind

Obedient

Cheerful

Thrifty

Brave

Clean

Reverent

At 10:30 every Sunday, here in the nave, you may join others, with Rev. Holly, in silent prayer

Listen…

David too, or the psalmist, had his memories of youth, which brought laughter and song

O LORD upon you have I leaned from my birth

When we are affronted, confronted with misery in mystery, as some today,  we too take our refuge in continuous praise, song and laughter, in WHOSE presence there is fullness of joy

A rock.  The home of wise man.  A rock.  Thou art Peter.  A rock.  A mighty refuge.

Even Ground Hog Day offers something solid, something good.

Every heart has secret sorrows

Monday’s child is fair of face

Tuesday’s child is full of grace

Wednesday’s child is full of woe

Thursday’s child has far to go

Friday’s child is loving and giving

Saturday’s child works hard for a living

But the child that is born on the Sabbath Day

Is happy, witty, bright and gay!

After church next week you may want to sing with the Thurman Choir, under the baton of SAJarrett…

Laugh and Sing…

Snow makes things slow

Paul offers his teaching to us, if we learn from him

About love

Love is God

Because I am loved, I can love

Behold the superiority, the nature, and the permanence of LOVE

The religious norm, the norm of faith is love, joy of heaven to earth come down

Trustworthy, loyal, helpful….

Learn to love

Come and join our undergraduates, confer with them and others

Learn, by day, by night, by day, to love

Learn…

Now the community of Jesus’ growing up years cannot fully accommodate his grown up voice

There is a wintery harshness in the moment he leaves

In love, directly, he says they are not special, not unique, except as is every snow flake, and they are angry, and he departs.

Every departure foreshadows the last

We are more mortal than we regularly realize

Our own departure, our ability to leave, to leave this frozen earth, this or another community, our families and family, in the bleak winter quiet, the austere winter quiet, we may passingly, suddenly recognize our omega point, dimly perceptible, afar

Jesus chooses two stories in which prophets take care of outsiders.  Blessings are to fall, not on the home town community, but on outsiders—Syrian, Syrophoenician, the ritually unclean, non-Jews

Now the community of Jesus’ growing up years cannot fully accommodate his grown up voice

There is a wintery harshness in the moment he leaves

In love, directly, he says they are not special, not unique, except as is every snow flake, and they are angry, and he departs.

Cyril Richardson had taught at Union Theological Seminary for 50 years.  His course on Patristics was famous, the finest of finely honed hour long lectures on Clement, Ireneaus, Origen, Athanasius.  He sat to teach.  He would cast about, and mention P Tillich, whom he described as if Tillich were still a promising but odd graduate student, from the continent, who would have benefitted from better early church history (‘Athansius was there before Tillich was’).  Out of order I appealed to take his course, my first term.  ‘Who knows how long he will teach?’, one said.  There is a living relationship between the 45 minute lecture and the 22 minute sermon.  If one lives, both do.  Richardson brushed aside the fads of the day—team teaching, contextual education, liberation theology, praxis—and lectured with a winter grace.  He died with one lecture only to go.  Mr Ruppe, his assistant, read the faded penciled yellow pad lecture, with tears.

I am proud to have been Richardson’s student.

At his funeral, the Episcopal priest demurred to preach, and read instead a sermon of Richardson’s own, delivered at the death of a friend.

In it the deceased, now quoted, had said, simply, what disturbs us about death is the prospect of the deaths of our loved ones, on the one hand, and the death of our dreams, on the other.  Let us face both prospects, he said.

It is a winter grace to face our fleshly limit.  To prepare, Sunday by Sunday, to prepare to leave, as one day we must, one day we shall.

There are no ordinary days, no insignificant holidays.

You will remember that she and George were graduated from High School in Grover’s Corners.  On the basis of a frank talking to over a soda, in which Emily criticizes George for being less than fully humble, George decides not to leave home, not to go to college, but to start working an uncle’s farm right away, and to marry Emily, the girl next door.  You remember their wedding.  “ A man looks pretty small at a wedding, all those good women standing shoulder to shoulder, making sure the knot is tied in a mighty public way.”   You remember that Emily, after just a few years of profoundly happy marriage and life, tragically dies in childbirth.  You remember that George finds no way to manage the extreme grief of his loss.  Simple Yankee English.  Simple reckoning about love, life, death and meaning.

Maybe you also remember, in the playwright’s imagination, Emily from the communion of saints looking out on her young husband and wanting to go back.

Others warn her away from the plan:  “All I can say Emily, is, don’t…it isn’t wise…(If you must do it) Choose an unimportant day.  Choose the least important day of your life.  It will be important enough.”

She chooses February 11, 1899, her 12th birthday.  She arrives at dawn.  She sees Main Street, the drugstore, the livery stable, and breathes the brightness of a crisp winter morning.  Simple.  She looks into her own house.  Her mother is making breakfast, her father returning from a speech given at Hamilton College.  Neighbors pass in the snow.  Simple.  She sees how young and pretty her mother looks—can’t quite believe it.  It is 10 below zero.  There is fussing to find a blue hair ribbon—“its on the dresser—if it were a snake it would bite you”.  Simple.  Papa enters to give a hug and a kiss and a birthday gift.  And others from mother and the boy next door. Simple.  “Just for a moment now we’re all together.  Mama, just for a moment now we’re all together.  Just for a moment we’re happy.  Let’s look at one another.”

Simple.  This is the gospel of Ground Hog Day, the best holiday of the year, the holiday of the extraordinary ordinary, of the uncommonly common, of the sunlit winter, of the eternal now.  Simple.  Grover’s Corners.  Papa. Mama.  Clocks ticking.  Sunflowers.  Food. Coffee.  New ironed dresses.  Hot baths.  Sleeping.  Waking up. “Earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”

Reverence for Life is the beginning of wisdom, as Schweitzer said.

Jesus left Nazareth

Jeremiah left Jerusalem, David left Israel, Paul left Judaism, Jesus left Nazareth

We too shall leave

This table is opened to your comfort

As we take our leave

As we prepare to leave

To leave…

Remember your creed…

 

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