Archive for June, 2013

Breaking Good

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

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~ Rev. Dr. Christopher H Evans

Professor of History of Christianity and Methodist Studies, BU School of Theology

Healing Frac(k)tures

Monday, June 24th, 2013

Luke 8:26-39

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Their pigs were dead. A whole herd of them driven into the lake. And now, the man previously possessed by demons, who was naked and living in the tombs, is somehow normal again; fully clothed and calm. The people of Gerasenes, swineherders (and of course Gentiles), were afraid. Not only were they afraid, but someone or several someones just lost their basis for economic foothold. The narrative in Luke which precedes this story of healing is the calming of the sea by Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which leaves them in awe and wonder of Jesus’ power. In this narrative, there is fear, and most likely, anger at the conclusion, drawing a stark contrast in how Jesus is perceived within different communities. A community that once maintained status quo by excluding one member, a fractured community, must now attempt to heal itself through God’s presence. The once-possessed man is given the order to turn around and be the voice that conveys God’s will to the community that isolated him, and still fears him.

We know very little about the legion of demons that possessed the man, but we know their effects: physically, the demons made the man strong, able to break through the shackles that his community had laden him with. Socially, the demons were an alienating force – the man lived in the tombs, isolated and naked. He was not a member of the community proper. In Jesus addressing the man’s demonic possession, he is not healing in the sense that we have come to attribute the medical idea of healing. Instead of addressing a sickness, something that makes the individual’s body ill, the healing of the demoniac is a social healing; healing the illnesses which create exclusion and prevent individuals from fully loving one another as God intends. Jesus challenges the way Gerasene society has made a comfortable existence with the demoniac. Their status quo is maintained within the community by making him an outcast. When he comes back a healed man, they are afraid because it challenges their perception of how society should function. Jesus’ actions in healing the man do not bring comfort, but fear of change.

The narrative of the healing in Gerasenes is not unlike many situations of fractured relationships we encounter today. Socially, we experience disparities between individuals based on economic status, race, sexual orientation, and religion. But we are not just fractured in our relationships with other people. We are also fractured in our relationship with the Earth. Climate change, water pollution, and deforestation are all symptoms of a fractured relationship with our environment. As an aspiring ethicist, I’m interested in how Christian belief can play a part in defining an ecological ethic – an appreciation of and respect for Earth and all its creatures, including humanity. Ecological ethics looks at issues of environmental degradation and provides analysis of the situation as well as suggestions for what may be the best course of action.

Our reliance on the Earth is essential for everyday life. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat (well, at least most of it) derive from natural processes. We could not exist without support from the Earth and its processes. We are, in fact, one of the most dependent organisms on the planet. But we tend to take the Earth and its processes for granted. We expect that the Earth will always provide for us and that the cycles will continue to function in the same way they always have. However, the way we use the Earth has become unsustainable. Our perceived possession of nature to use how we see fit has led to its abuse. In this context, the Earth is viewed as an object rather than a subject. A commodity rather than possessing its own inherent value. To use Martin Buber’s terminology, an “it” rather than a “thou.”

The ecological ethicist Jim Nash, former professor of Social Ethics at BU School of Theology, advocates in his book Loving Nature that as Christians we must come to understand nature as our neighbor. This requires us to be in a similar loving relationship with nature as we are instructed to share with our human neighbors. Nature has its own inherent value, separate from the utilitarian value human beings assign to it when they view it only in economic terms. From a Christian perspective, nature’s inherent value can be identified in scripture. In Genesis 1:31, God declares the whole earth “very good” not just because it is useful to humans, but because it is good in itself.

There is one example among many of current environmental crises that I’d like to highlight today. Hydraulic Fracturing, or fracking, as it’s commonly called, is a process used by natural gas companies to access and release natural gas deposits a mile or more within the Earth so that it can be used for energy purposes. Some of you might be familiar with it from films such as GasLand or the recent Matt Damon movie Promised Land. Described simply, the process involves drilling into the Earth, first vertically, then horizontally, to access gas pockets within shale formations. A pipe, enclosed in concrete, is then placed in the drilled well, and chemically treated water is pumped into the well, fracturing the rock formations below and releasing the gas. Natural gas companies have established or are establishing fracking sites in many states; California, Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania just to name a few. New England has yet to experience this form of energy production.

On the surface, fracking seems an ideal process to provide a domestic energy source. Natural gas is cleaner burning than oil or coal, and if spills occur, it just vents into the atmosphere instead of creating a huge mess. Many of us rely on natural gas to heat our water, cook our food, or even heat our homes. Fracking also brings with it the promise of economic prosperity through jobs and the leasing or purchasing of land owned by individuals who sit on top of these shale formations.

Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to travel to my home state of Pennsylvania to visit Bradford and Sullivan counties, located in the Northeast of Pennsylvania. Bradford county has the highest number of fracking sites in the state of Pennsylvania, and Sullivan county has seen an increase in well drilling in the past few years. I was concerned about the reports I was hearing regarding the practice of fracking in the media, which tended toward focusing on both the economic benefit and the potential threats. I was also concerned because fracking sites are starting to come into the county where my extended family lives. I wanted to see first-hand what it was like to live in an area where fracking was happening and how people who lived in these areas felt about the process. So on a chilly day in March, my dad and I set out in a rental car to visit two Lutheran churches, one in each county, where parishoners were feeling the effects of fracking. Most people I encountered expressed an overall satisfaction with the gas companies’ presences in their communities. This was because the natural gas companies brought economic stability to areas which five years prior had struggling economies. Both communities lacked industry suitable for providing enough meaningful work for its citizens. Sullivan county, especially the town of Dushore, which I visited was at one time mostly farm land. Now, an aging population was finding it hard to maintain farming lifestyles and saw fracking as an economic opportunity.

If a section of land is identified as containing gas deposits or would make for a good fracking site, gas companies will sign leases with the landowners to allow them to access those pockets of gas underground. A fracking pad is where the actual drilling takes place to establish a well, and can vary in size. The ones we saw were about the size of a football field. Once the company begins accessing natural gas, the landowners receive monthly payments from the gas companies. Individuals can also sell portions of their land for gas pipelines to be installed, an important part of the gas collection process. Additionally, the gas companies improve infrastructure, such as roads, which the state has not attended to. Local businesses see an increase in sales and patronage. There is also the promise of jobs within the gas companies for individuals living in those areas.

My experiences in Pennsylvania left me torn. Environmentally, I believe that a continued reliance on fossil fuels is not the solution to our energy needs. I am also fearful of the fracking process itself for the damage it causes to the Earth. However, the people in these communities could easily be my relatives. When put into a situation of economic hardship, any opportunity for gain seems like the best, and in some cases, the only option. But thinking to the larger picture, to our global community, the practice of fracking is attempting to put a band-aid on an energy and economic situation that requires stitches. Not just a band aid, but a band-aid that has been dropped on the floor and is potentially spreading infection. Just as the people of Gerasenes thought that the solution to their problem was to separate the demoniac from their community, we are seeking the wrong solution to maintain our status quo of energy needs.

Looking at fracking from an “outsider” perspective, there are several key questions one might raise about the practice. First, is it safe? Not just is it safe for human communities, but is it safe for our Earth community as well. In ecological ethics we utilize an idea called the “precautionary principle.” The precautionary principle is the sentiment that action should not be taken if the consequences are uncertain and potentially dangerous. With fracking there is a great deal of concern regarding the health of human beings and the environment. There is potential for contamination of drinking water by chemically treated water and methane, either through improper disposal/containment of wastewater or cracks/breaks in the piping or concrete casing. Also, improper disposal and treatment of fracking wastewater, which contains unspecified chemicals considered trade secrets for each company poses a threat. Natural gas is highly explosive, so there is also potential for explosions occurring at fracking sites. Finally, loss of already dwindling fresh water supplies, as an individual frack requires 7 to 8 million gallons of water, some of which is unretrevable once it enters the ground. Fresh water is an ever-increasingly more precious resource as our world’s population grows and our impacts on the environment limit its amount. Can we really afford to use water in this manner? While gas companies claim that they are refining the process of fracking so that accidents and concerns become less numerous, there is still potential for great harm. When is that potential too much? Is it fair for some communities to bear the potential effects of the fracking process so that we can continue our reliance on fossil fuels? Are those potential drawbacks being communicated effectively to these communities?

Additionally, how sustainable is fracking as both an energy and economic resource? Natural gas is still a fossil fuel. It does burn more cleanly and efficiently than oil and coal, but it still produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Not to mention the fact that natural gases themselves, such as methane, are also greenhouse gases. Methane does not last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, but it is more efficient at trapping radiation. The EPA states that at equivalence, the impact of methane on climate change is 20x greater than carbon dioxide over the course of a 100-year period. One must also consider the amount of natural gas present in within the United States, and the rate at which we consume this form of energy. Natural gas is a nonrenewable resource, and just like coal and oil it will eventually run out. When that time comes, what will happen to the areas that rely on it for economic growth?

Sometimes conveying the important messages of life put us in tough places. We are called to speak the word of God through justice and love. We do not only share that message of justice and love with each other within our congregation and Christian community, but with the whole world. The demoniac in today’s Gospel wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus tells him that he must go back and declare what God has done for him. Returning to a community which had already excluded him because he did not fit into their social order to share the good news is a difficult task. We share in this task, though, when we speak or show how God’s love and concern for justice shapes our understanding of what is good and right in our wider society. Speaking out about fracking seeks justice for the earth as well as the communities who experience it, including the overall impact on our global society.

Today’s message is that we cannot remain comfortable with the status quo when it comes to our reliance upon fossil fuels. In doing so we create and continue to foster the fractures between humanity and the environment.  Just as the people of Gerasenes are afraid after Jesus’ healing of the demoniac because it challenges how they understand their society to properly function by excluding those who are deemed to be lesser, so too are we afraid to change our ways of life that might lead to a less convenient or less comfortable situation when it comes to energy production and use. We need to heal our fractured relationship with the Earth, learning to work with it rather than against it.

So what can we do? For such a large scale issue, considering how we can make an impact at individual level can be overwhelming. One place to start is revisiting those three words we hear repeated when speaking about the environment: Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Often, most emphasis is placed on recycling – don’t throw it away if it’s paper, plastic, aluminum or tin, put it in the green or blue bin! But recycling is at the end of the list of principles because it should be our final attempt at reducing waste. Recycling requires energy input to convert goods into new products, even if the material input is less. It is not the final answer to our energy consumption problems.

Reusing is a concept that many of us forget about. When it comes to energy, it’s impossible to reuse energy already spent. However, by reusing products that require energy to be made or processed – nearly everything we purchase – we can reduce the amount of fossil fuels, like natural gas, expended in the manufacturing process. I’ll give you one example. Thanks to the performer Macklemore, a whole new generation is becoming familiar with reusing. His hit “Thrift Shop” encourages people to find unique treasures at their local thrift shop, making it stylish to realize that “One man’s trash, that’s another man’s come-up.”  (For those of you who don’t know, a “come up” is a bargain). I’m proud to say that today, I am reusing – this cassock that I’m wearing was given to my dad 45 years ago by my Great Aunt for his ordination into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Reducing, on the other hand, is much more difficult than recycling or even reusing, but it probably the most important of these three principles. It challenges our notion of our status quo. Just as the people of Gerasenes had created stability in their community by separating the demoniac from interacting with them and became afraid of bringing him back into their society after Jesus healed him, we are also afraid of challenging the status quo of our Americanized existence. We live in a consumerist culture, which tells us if there is not a steady-state of growth in our economy, then our society is in peril. We are encouraged to consume. It’s the American way. But we do not have to “buy-in” (pardon the pun) to this way of existence. For example, when it comes to energy, we can reduce our use by employing sustainable practices, such as taking shorter showers, weatherizing our houses/apartments, and consuming less (reusing comes back into play here). We can investigate alternative energy sources – find out how we can effectively access resources that are renewable, like solar, wind, and geothermal power and parlay them into sources for green jobs.

Additionally, we can share our understanding of God’s presence in the world by speaking out against injustices to our neighbors, whether humankind or otherkind. Grassroots organizing against fracking has been especially effective in New York state, where local communities utilize the precautionary principle, insisting that greater proof of the safety of fracking processes must be made in order to allow it to occur. Through these processes the citizens of small townships have managed to ban fracking in their areas and have convinced the governor to continually place moratoriums on fracking within the entire state. We can also seek out alternative forms of economies, which can provide communities with work options that build relationships between community members and the Earth.

When we begin to recognize ourselves as part of a larger community, both human and earthly, we must consider how our actions impact those around us. Part of our faith as Christians is that there is always hope in the face of challenges, and that love and justice will prevail. We cannot maintain a status quo that continues to alienate and fracture our communities. We must hear what God has done for us and utilize that knowledge to our best advantage. Acting through our faith, we must seek to be those agents of love and justice to our earth community; we must seek to heal our fractures.

Amen.

~Jessica Chicka, Chapel Associate for Lutheran Ministry

 

A Johannine Inspiration

Sunday, June 16th, 2013

I John 4: 7-12

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John is the ‘spiritual gospel’. The gospel and the letters named for John, including our lesson read earlier, were given their shared name long ago.  So named in the second century by a person whom once we termed a ‘church father’ but term such an one such no longer, rather saying an ‘early Christian writer’, the Johannine literature has long inspired poetry.

From the doors just west of us on the Marsh Plaza emerge every spring a class of soon to be preachers, holding Bibles in their right hands and massive debt in their left.  By July 1 they are in pulpits, preaching, preaching every Sunday a Sunday sermon, ‘about God and about 20 minutes’, for forty years. Some of those sermons will come from John.

Come Saturday night they will begin to write their sermons.  They will find in the passages to be read from John various troubling, troublesome, troublous passages. It is a diachronic reading of John, one that looks at its place and time, its community of origin, its sitz im leben, or life setting, which frees, and which alone can give a measure of the promise of 8:32, ‘you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free’.  Coming down from the STH steps, Bible in one hand and massive debt in the other, our students, one hopes, will also have acquired some pious understanding of John’s history and theology.

They will have learned that the phrase ‘the Jews’ does not mean ‘the Jews’, but grew up in the year 90ad out of a painful separation of Christian Jews from Jewish Christians.  The community behind John contested with those whom they referred by this phrase, even though they, the Jews, were their own kin.  They themselves were Jews too! These passages in John are to be understood historically and theologically as a particularly dark moment in the Christian tradition of anti-semitism. Our students need to know this first, and more.

John’s Jesus makes several remarkable claims, given Philippians 2 and Matthew 5.  Are many of them historically reliable?  No.  They reflect a changed understanding of the Christ, hard won and hard earned.  The titles for Christ—Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man—come from different points it the community’s journey, history, and theology.  Our students need to know this first, and more.

John’s community has suffered trauma that has caused change.  Trauma brings change.  They have suffered the trauma of disappointment.  The end of the world which they expected did not come, disappointingly enough.  They found the courage to admit it, and change.  That is, in disappointment they discovered freedom.  They also have suffered the trauma of dislocation.  They have been thrown out of their religious home, de-synagogued if you will, and are wandering out in the street when they write.  They lost their mother tongue, mother land, mother tradition, which is huge dislocation.  They found the courage to face it, and change.  That is, in dislocation they discovered grace.  Paul, who did not write or know John, might well have said, see, I told you, ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’.  And, mirable dictu, in the cross of Christ and in the loss of John, this ancient faith community uncovered a way to love. Our students need to know this first, and more.

However.  Don’t you know that life is a funny old dog?  For six years I have along side me as teaching assistant a most brilliant, funny, young mother of two, Episcopal priest.  She is a literary critic.  She practices rhetorical criticism.  She loves poetry.  Twice a term I ask her to bring her exotic medicines, the alchemic mixtures of literary criticism to bear on our text.  I like to be magnanimous, don’t you know.  I believe in the liberal balance, don’t you know.  I honor freedom of speech in the university, don’t you know.  Plus, the students love her. The students appreciate her approach—AS AN ADDITION MIND YOU TO THE MAIN WORK OF THE COURSE.  And, I must say, I too appreciate her and love her work.  Even teachers can learn.  As that great Yankee Yogi Berra said, ‘you can observe a lot just by watching’.  ‘The old owl sits in the oak tree, the more he speaks the more he hears, the more he hears, the less he speaks, why are we not like that old owl?’

 

The Rev., now Rev. Dr. Regina Walton every term shows our students three poems which grow out of the Fourth Gospel and illumine its meaning.  For today’s Father’s Day sermon, I determined to have you hear them as well.  They are light, joy, truth, power, meaning, and love.  Gospel.  They are beautiful.  They are rhetorically beautiful religious language.  What other than such beauty, epitomized by our lesson from 1 John, will drive out the demons of hateful religious rhetoric? And they can help us, here in Boston, here in Marsh Chapel, here today.

The poet George Herbert lived from 1593 to 1633.  The English Civil War occurred soon after his death, leading to ‘disestablishment’. Herbert was an ‘orator’ at Cambridge, and sickly.  From a young age he knew that he was called to write devotional poetry.  He knew John Donne, who was a friend of his mother’s.  He employs both trochaic and iambic meters.  He writes, among other things, of the soul’s call to God, and of the claim the believer has on God.  That is, in his work there is a Johannine courage.  Love made me welcome, but my soul drew back…You must sit down and taste my meat…Herbert wrote of love.  Here is a poem (you beautifully sang it a moment ago) that draws directly on John 14:17, John 6:6, and John 16:22:

The Call

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:

Such a Way, as gives us breath:

Such a Truth as ends all strife:

And such a life as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:

Such a Light as shows a feast:

Such a Feast as mends in length:

Such a strength as makes his guest.

Come my Joy, my Love, my Heart:

Such a Joy as none can move:

Such a Love as none can part:

Such a Heart as joyes in love.

Such a heart as joyes in love.  As a pastor in this community, Marsh Chapel, I have the privilege of seeing women and men struggling to live in faith, and doing so by inspiration.   In our community we are expecting a birth or two, fairly soon, a joy in love.  In our community we have couples who are in the throes of making marriage work and work better, a joy in love.  In our community we have dads and moms whose sons and daughters are in armed service, and they are praying for their safe returns, a joy in love.  In our community we have some who struggle with the challenges, physical and personal, of aging, and are finding healing care, a joy in love.  In our community we have students who are learning to learn what they most want to learn, not someone else’s fantasy of what they might learn, a joy in love.  In our community we have women and men, the salt of the earth, who reflect and radiate Christ’s joy in love.

The poet Henry Vaughn lived from 1622 to 1695.  He fought on the Royalist side during the great war.  Vaughn is known as one of the best followers and imitators of Herbert.  In 1649, Charles I executed Oliver Cromwell.  The Church of England was disestablished and the Book of Common Prayer was outlawed.  The King was understood to be anointed by God.  Incidentally, his brother was an alchemist.  Vaughn lived during a dark time, and his poetry evokes his time.  He recalls the great Pseudo-Dionysus and the Cloud of Unknowing.  He celebrates night and the darkness of God, in way that I believe connects truly to our time as well.   It is no accident that he bases this poem on Nicodemus at night, John 3:2ff.  Here some verses from this wondrous work:

The Night

Through that pure Virgin Shrine

That sacred veil drawn o’er thy glorious noon

That men might look and live as glow-worms shine

And face the moon:

Wise Nicodemus saw such light

As made him know his God by night.

Most blest believer he!

Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes

Thy long expected healing wings could see,

When thou didst rise,

And what can nevermore be done,

Did at mid-night speak with the Sun!

O who will tell me, where

He found thee at that dead and silent hour!

What hallowed solitary ground did bear

So rare a flower,

Within whose sacred leaves did like

The fullness of the Deity…

Dear night! This world’s defeat;

The stop to busy fools; care’s check and curb;

The day of Spirits; my soul’s calm retreat

Which none disturb!

Christ’s progress and his prayer time;

The hours to which high Heaven doth chime…

Were all my loud evil days

Calm and unhaunted as is thy dark Tent,

Whose peace but by some Angel’s wing or voice

Is seldom rent;

Then I in Heaven all the long year

Would keep, and never wander here.

But living where the sun

Doth all things wake, and where all mix and tire

Themselves and others, I consent and run

To every mire,

And by this world’s guiding light,

Err more than I can do by night.

There is in God (some say)

A deep but dazzling darkness; as men here

Say it is late and dusky, because they

See not all clear;

O for that night! Where I in him

Might live invisible and dim.

Nicodemus—like the the beloved disciple, like the paraclete, like the logos, like the ‘judeans’—helps form a bridge from the community of faith to the community of life, from religion to culture, from church to world.  And back. Most blest believer he! Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes, Thy long expected healing wings could see. At Marsh Chapel we yearn for a faith amenable to culture and a culture amenable to faith.  We desire such not because it is immediately present or likely with ease in our time to arise.  It is not and it will not.  But as Vaclev Havel said, ‘I hope for the good not because it will necessarily succeed, but because it is right and true.’  When the faith you personally cherish walks by night without fear across this whole great land, and when the culture you inhabit visits the community of faith without fear, by night or day—when Jesus and Nicodemus embrace—then a bit of heaven has come to earth.   For example, when the beauty of the people and voices of the Marsh Choir, who embody salt and light, find purchase in a great hall with a culturally iconic band, not particularly otherwise known for religious observance by the way, then you have an apocalyptic moment, a place of faith amenable to culture and culture amenable to faith.

You will not be surprised, many of you, by the choice for our third poet.  The poet T.S. Eliot was born in America, yet lived most of his life in England until his death in 1965.  He was the greatest poet of his age, and one of the greatest of any age.  While our generation does not cling to him as did an earlier one, and this itself is a pity, nonetheless he touches us too.  To him we owe the rediscovery of the metaphysical poets.  Eliot found God’s presence in God’s absence.  Like Herbert’s mature claim upon God, like Vaughn’s love of night, Eliot’s presence in absence seems strikingly close to the spirit of our own age.  I dedicate this reading to my dear dad who died three years ago, an authentic lover of the word.  The following poem owes much to John 1:1 ff:

 

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent

If the unheard, unspoken

Word is unspoken, unheard;

Still is the unspoken word, the Word, unheard,

The Word without a word, the Word within

The world and for the world;

And the light shone in the darkness and

Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled

About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word

Resound?

The Word within the world and for the world. This summer, starting next week with Ms. Jessica Cheeka, you will hear voices from our strongest sister pulpits in the north, Asbury First in Rochester NY, Christ Church in NYC, Foundry Church Washington, and ours from Marsh Chapel in Boston.   Of all the seven national preacher summer series we have now offered I am most glad for this one, for many reasons, but let me mention just one.   In Methodism our pulpits historically, since Wesley, Asbury, Cartwright, Shaw, Sockman, Tittle and all, have led the way.  Now, in our time of ecclesiological fragmentation, much farther advanced than most realize, we shall need to rely not so heavily, certainly not exclusively, on the superintending voices, important as they are, but on the deeper streams of mercy still fed by the healthy communities of faith, and by their pulpits.  Wesley loved the Easter Orthodox traditions, those of the patriarchies, not of the bishops of Rome and elsewhere, not a bad memory for a Father’s Day.  The communities, in the East, led and lead—Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople.  We need to look East, in this sense, to listen first to the remaining vibrant pulpits.  In the next decade, we shall need these four arrows together in a quiver—Marsh, Christ, Foundry, Asbury—as we minister the Word within the world and for the world.  The superintending is rooted in 1 John, but the vocal leadership, the spiritual leadership, the Spirit, is rooted in John.  Have a great summer!

 

Here are three poems, three moments  of Johannine inspiration, Herbert, and Vaughn and Eliot.  One for those in need, celebrating the One who joyes in love.  One for those at night, celebrating the one who marries faith and life.  One for those troubled by absence, celebrating the coming, the return of voice and word.  Amen. Amen. Amen.

 

Beloved let us love one another!

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

 

An Embraceable Variant

Sunday, June 9th, 2013

John 17: 3

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1. Summit

 

High atop the world’s greatest writings there sits our Holy Scripture.  Such knowledge is too wonderful for us.  It is high.  We cannot attain it.

 

Within the Scripture itself are conjoined the sibling testaments, the older and newer, the Hebrew Scripture and the Christian Writings.   For us just now, the 27 newer books stand a little bit higher.

 

The Gospels and the Letters and the Apocalyptic Writings are all inspired and inspiring, all sufficient for faith and practice.  The gospels though have a certain priority, in our liturgy, and in our hearts.  They lie just a step or two higher, atop higher ground.

 

You love all the Gospels.  One there is though which from antiquity has been known as the sublime, the spiritual gospel.  We shall ascend today to the craggy paths and rarified air of the Fourth Gospel.

 

High above the rest of John, above the seven signs to begin and above the passion and resurrection to end, there lies the strangest moonscape in the Scripture, and so in all literature, and so in life.  I mean chapters 13-17.    We are about to place our homiletical flag on the very summit, the highest of high peaks, the textual Matterhorn, Everest, Mount Washington, Pike’s Peak:  John 17:3

 

And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

2. Where We Least Expect To Find It:  Freedom In Disappointment, Grace In Dislocation, Love In Departure: John

Your own participation in this sermon is cordially invited, and fully required today.  We affirm, with the ancient Gospel according to St. John the Divine 17:3, that we find freedom in disappointment, we grasp grace in dislocation, and we learn love in departure.  Look back at all your experience to date.  What is your greatest disappointment?  It is a clue to freedom.  What is your hardest dislocation?  It is a signpost for grace.  What is your most grievous departure?  It is the way of love.

The community of the beloved disciple knew about disappointment.  After three generations, and some, the community had awaited the primitive hope of the church to be realized.  They awaited the return of Christ.  The resurrection of the dead from their graves.  The end of time.  The apocalypse of God.  It did not come.  He did not come, at least not in the way once hoped.   I find it the most remarkable feature of the New Testament that John, rather than being lost in a sea of disheartening failure, in the very eye of his most stormy theological hurricane, found freedom.  In theological disappointment he found freedom.

In our time, speaking of theological disappointment, we are bidding a reluctant farewell to God.  To a certain, junior, perception of God.  God reigns.  This we affirm with the church militant and triumphant.  But God’s way among us is away from us.  He is risen.  He is not here.  See the place where they laid him.  And you?

The community of the beloved disciple knew about dislocation.  They had lost their family of origin.  They were sent out from their mother religion.  The church that wrote John had been thrown out of the synagogue.  The life they grew up with had cast them out.  It took three generations for them to grasp the joyful grace in dislocation.  Count it all grace, brethren, when various dislocations beset you!

In our time we have also known sociological dislocation aplenty.   Children bear the brunt of unemployment in the home, for instance.  A certain sense of civic self was dislodged, here in Boston, this year, for instance.  And you?

The community of the beloved disciple knew about departure.  The layers of grief culminating in chapter 17, while ostensibly a rehearsal of Jesus’ own departure, may also have been crafted by the heart and voice of their aged John, the other and beloved disciple, whose own departure, in the midst of disappointment and dislocation, itself provoked these layers of grief.  Is it not ironic that the sharpest, most rarified language of love in all of the New Testament—in all of literature—arises in the hour of departure?

In our time,  as has every generation, we face the departure of persons and groups. ‘Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love’ (Bonhoeffer). The departure of the Christ makes space for love. As I have loved you, so you also ought to love one another.   ‘Be yourself, but be your best self, dare to be different and to follow your own star.’  You snowflake, you.  And you?

The measures of freedom and grace given to us become real possibilities, real freedom and real grace, only when we have the gracious freedom to decide for faith.  The same is magnificently true of love.  This is the message of John, at the end.

But how does this happen?  Freedom, grace and love come through variance, in John, difference, in John, the courage to act differently, think differently, in John.   Let me see if an analogy will help.

3. Brother John

 

We are four siblings in my family of origin.  The older three have brown hair.  The youngest is a redhead, whose name is John.  John’s bright red locks are unlike, quite unlike, the less remarkable curls of Bob, Cathy and Cynthia.  He stands apart, does John.  It makes you wonder where he came from, with such a distinctive aspect.  John is like his Gospel namesake, the Fourth Gospel.  The youngest of the four, he stands out, so different from his synoptic siblings Matthew, Mark and Luke.  They with their shared brown hair, their shared parables and teachings, their shared emphasis on the humanity of Jesus, their shared trips from Galilee to Jerusalem, they just don’t look at all like their younger redheaded brother.

In the summer, it happens, as it may in your family, there is a family reunion for one part of our tribe.  Occasionally, we would go, growing up.  Like yours, ours is something of standard reunion.  It is held on a farm near Albany, which has been in the family since before George Washington rode a horse.   After the usual light meal of beef, corn, potatoes, bread, sausage, pies, and pickles and so on, the extended family (or those who having eaten so can still move) will sometimes stand for a photograph on the long farm house veranda.  I ask you to look at the photo.  I am holding it here.  Can you see it?  Well, even if you cannot see it across the radio waves, you can probably guess what it shows.  Of these eighty people, do you see how many have red hair?  About 60—young or old, tall or short, heavy or slight, male or female, they mostly have red hair, like John.  75% are redheads.  In fact, in the photo, it looks like a sea of red hair.  Maybe a red heads convention out in the farm fields of Cooperstown, NY.  John isn’t the odd ball.  His siblings are.

John is not the second century Greco Roman odd ball.  His synoptic siblings are.  When you put the Fourth Gospel, with all its red haired radical difference, on the farm house veranda of second century religious family literature, he fits right in.  He stands shoulder to shoulder with all the Gnostic writings that are so like him, especially in these late chapters. It looks like a redheads convention. He looks and sounds quite like the rest of his second and third cousins, once or twice removed:  The Paraphrase of Shem, the Treatise on the Resurrection, the Odes of Solomon, the Apocryphon of John, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary.  How else will we ever hear this voice of Jesus from John 17?

And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom though hast sent.

Six Synoptic differences!   Eternal life, not kingdom of heaven.  Know, not believe.  The only true God, not Abba.  Jesus Christ, not Rabbi or Master.  Sent, not begotten.

This voice is NOTHING like that of the Sermon on the Mount, or that of the parable of the Good Samaritan, or that of the cry from Psalm 22 on the cross.  Not human, but divine, here.  Not earthly, but heavenly, here.  Not low, but high, here.  Not immanent, but transcendent, here.

The community of the Gospel of John had a radical experience of Jesus, as God on earth.   To render that experience meaningful, they had the radical courage to take language from the heretics around them, the Gnostics, and use it as their own BECAUSE IT FIT.  It worked.  It explained to the huddled humans clinging to Christ what they had experienced in him:  divine grace and divine freedom.  It rendered the sense of consecration, the sense of holy living and dying, the sense of consecrated joy, which they had found, with the Light of the World, with the Bread of Life, with the Good Shepherd, with the Resurrection, with the Word made flesh.

The community of the Gospel of John feared not the culture around them.  They feared not truth, even when that truth was best expressed outside of their particular religious circle.  They had the guts to use language belonging to pagans, outsiders, heretics, Gnostics to celebrate and consecrate their faith.  In doing so, they opened up the church to the world, to the future, to the culture around them.    They changed their way of speaking of Christ, and pointed to Christ above, in, and transforming the culture around them.  They changed.  They had the courage to change.

In age, our own, when the Gospel of John, served raw, without cooking, without historical interpretation, can be made to sound like the voice not of tradition but of traditionalism, we do well to remember John’s courage to change, to reach out to the culture around, to put the gospel in word and music on the air waves of a pagan culture, out on the radio waves of a secular world, and where possible to use that same culture

Raymond Brown: ‘Some scholars may ponder on the luck of the Beloved Disciple that his community’s Gospel was not recognized for the sectarian tractate that it really was.  But others among us will see this as a recognition by Apostolic Christians that the Johannine language was not really a riddle and the Johannine voice was not alien…What the Johannine Christians considered to be a tradition that had come down from Jesus seems to have been accepted by many other Christians as an embraceable variant of the tradition that they had from Jesus’.  (TCOTBD, 18)

 

4. Where We Least Expect To Find It:  Freedom In Disappointment, Grace In Dislocation, Love In Departure:  Today

Freedom

A poor man went to a Methodist church for worship.  The congregation welcomed him and he returned week by week.  After a while the women’s circle took up a collection and bought him a nice new suit, with a blue tie.  He happily received the gift, but they never saw him in church again.

A while later, on the street, one of church members saw him and asked what had happened.  Did he not like the suit?  Did it not fit?  Was he afraid to wear it?

“Oh no, I love the suit.  I look great in it.  When I say myself in the mirror, I looked so good I thought, ‘I look like a million bucks.  I look too good to go just to the Methodist church.  I think I’m dressed well enough to go the Episcopal church.  I think I will go there.  And that is what I did”.   Disappointment led to freedom!

Some years ago we sat at dinner with several other couples, in a beautiful home, over a majestic meal, graciously served.  Because the couples new each other well, and were in trust to each other, there was the chance for hard and serious conversation, consecrated conversation you might say.  This evening the debate swirled around gay marriage.

There are tipping points in the way a culture moves.  Some of them occur at dinner, in beautiful homes, over majestic meals, graciously served.  The host was opposed, to gay marriage that is.  The conversation widened, and then narrowed, and then widened again.  We can surely agree that there are many ways of keeping faith, and many honest, different, points of view, on this and on many issues.

Across the table sat Carol, mother of two fine teenagers, married with joy to a business leader, baseball player, Red Sox fan.  She had battled cancer once before, and now it returned, and she fought it again.  We could not see it then, but in seven months she was gone.

Over some heat and some laughter, much disagreement but little discord, the conversation, consecrated you might say, moved on.  Carol spoke fully, and at one point said:  ‘You know, I have learned how precious life is, how fragile, what a gift every day is.  Here is what I feel:  if two people truly love each other, deeply commit to each other, and want to consecrate their vows, that is they want what Doug and I have, why would I ever want to stand in their way, why would I ever want to deprive them of that happiness that I know so well.’  I heard some minds changing as the dessert came out.  The embodiment of the embraceable variant.

Pasternak loved Shakespeare’s Sonnett 66. It is said that whenever he read aloud the crowd would not let him leave until he had rehearsed it for them.  “Give us the 66th…”  Its evocation of daily anxiety bears remembering.  The poem is unequaled in its announcement of disappointment, but also of freedom to wrestle with it.  When life gives you the 66th remember Shakespeare, but especially his last couplet.

Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,

As to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplac’d,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgrac’d,
And strength by limping sway disabled
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly–doctor-like–controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tir’d with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.

‘Captive good attending captain ill…’  Can you hear that?  It begs to be heard.  Stand with your people in tragedy, honest and kind in word and deed.

Grace

Our churches are in the throes of dislocation.  Lyle Schaller had our number 25 years ago when he said:  “These denominations will gladly accept 2-3% annual decline in exchange for the tacit agreement that there be no significant change”.  And so, in 25 years, in the Northeast, United Methodism has lost 50% of its membership.  Today more 511 of the 930 pulpits in my home conference, Upper New York, are occupied by non-elders:  the preaching and ministry are done by people without full or proper education, preparation, examination or ordination.  In what other sector of serious life would we permit this?

Sometimes a dose of realized eschatology can clear the mind and strengthen the soul.   In a way, every day is our last.  In a way, heaven and hell are here and now.  In a way, the end time is all of time.  John puts it this way: ‘the hour is coming AND NOW IS’.

The freedom of the gospel has gradually embraced multiple variants.   The poor.  The immigrant.  People of color.  Those once enslaved. Women.  Gay people. Others.  The Other.  In fact, the lesson of the gospel of grace enshrined in John is the spiritual expansion of grace, through the throes of dislocation, found in the embrace of the embraceable variant.

In grace, our healthy future will come from a resurrection of thought, word and deed:  of traditional worship, of traveling elders who excel in preaching, and in tithing to support the church we love.

I bear witness:  All of the lastingly good features of my life have come through grace in dislocation:  name in baptism, faith in confirmation, community in eucharist, partnership in marriage, work in ordination, love in pardon, and hope in Christ for this life and the next.  All these are found in the healthy life of healthy, vibrant, discreet communities of faith.  In our dislocation we discover grace, an embraceable variant, which makes all the difference.  Our New England poet had it right:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

 

Love

Be sober, be watchful.  Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. (James 5: 1)   While we may shed the inherited demonic mythology in the verse, knowing and honoring its origins in the distant past, we nonetheless fully recognize the spiritual truth here:  we know not what a day may bring, but only that the hour for serving is always present. 1 John 4: 7-12 captures love divinely:  Beloved let us love one another…

New occasions teach new duties

Time makes ancient good uncouth

One must upward still and onward

Who would keep abreast of truth

We too want to discipline ourselves and keep alert.   So we pray.  Do you pray?  So we commune.  Do you receive the eucharist?  So we study.  Have you devotionally read your Bible this week?  So we converse with one another.  Have you opened home and heart recently in Christian conversation?  So we fast—park your car, save your money, do not reply all:  fight pollution, debt and dehumanization.  We too want to discipline ourselves and keep alert.

When we buried Lu Lingzi, last month, her family bowed, ceremonially, and from the waist, at the very close of the service, a recognition of real love in real departure.

 

O LORD, thou hast searched me and known me!

Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up; thou discernest my thoughts from afar.

Thou searchest out my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether.

Thou dost beset me behind and before, and layest thy hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it.

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?

If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!

If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.

If I say, “Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be night,”

even the darkness is not dark to thee, the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light with Thee.

 

Sursum corda!  Lift up your hearts.  The variance, your distinctive self is utterly embraceable.  That variance, and your courage to live it, bring saving wholeness.  There is a clue to Freedom in disappointment.  There is a signpost to Grace in dislocation.  There is a way of Love in departure.

 

This is eternal life, that they may know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.

 

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

 

A Touch of Grace

Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

Galatians 1: 1-12

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

 

When St. Paul writes that the gospel came to him by apocalypse he intends neither a sole reliance on experience to the left nor a rejection of experience to the right.   The gospel comes by apocalypse at the incursion of spirit in life, of love in experience, of experience inside out, a touch of grace.  So our experience matters, and our awareness of experience invaded is largely all we have.

 

May 2 our friend and teacher retired in New York City.  Dr. Christopher Morse lectured on the history of Christian theology in September of 1976, and before and after.  The lectures , built in part upon the lectures of Robert Calhoun at Yale a decade earlier, in may have been, are today still shimmering in memory, forty years later.   Speech matters.  On a bright May morning, some from near and some from far drove to Riverside Drive, parked behind Grant’s tomb, wondered again and aloud who was buried there (J), peered in at the dark, historic, gothic emptiness of Riverside Church, hunted down friends at the Interchurch Center next door, sat in the venerable Union Theological Seminary courtyard, fragrant and cloistered and quiet, then in James Chapel, now filling with five decades of friends and students.  The honoree asked not to preach, but only to celebrate the Eucharist, in clear Methodist fashion, as we do today.   Doctoral students sang an anthem musically summarizing Morse’s theological principles.  (Hear these words set to guitar and folk music:  coherence, catholicity, conformity…(J)).  A young student preached.  Prayers were offered by another, strong, sonorous, spirited prayers by another young student, the son of a prominent NYC Methodist preacher.  A simple luncheon followed, with a portrait unveiled, no eulogies or roasts or remembrances.  Just 90 minutes, noon on, of grace.  Then the drive home, along the coast and through New Haven, a drive most richly populated by ghosts, haunted by recollection and reckoning, riddled with gratitude.  Friends, an excellent 80 minute lecture lives, feeds, and lasts a lifetime, maybe even three such.  By the way, the young man who prayed so well, a cradle Methodist, a parsonage child, a brilliant future preacher, is gay.  Said a proud, heart broken dad, ‘He will not lie.  He will not stay.  He will find another denomination’.  But the father’s smile through pain was a real, though fragile, real though apocalyptic touch of grace, a holy Eucharist, love made real.

Boston

May 16 started six days of Commencement gladness, here at Boston University, across a campus and city still bruised and hurting from spring terror and death.  We shall sorely and truly need together the ongoing development of a spiritual discipline against resentment (acknowledged, admitted, accepted—and then wrestled with, like love with an angel).  More than 80 graduates were anointed by word and sword with a scarlet key.  The dental school celebration—large, colorful, global. A certain choir learned that they would sing with the Rolling Stones, a band active when Christopher Morse was in college.  Of course, with gladness, we happily recall the great, big moments of Commencement 2013.  Morgan Freeman photographed with Jan Hill.  Morgan Freeman cheered by students, ‘speech, speech…’  And in extatraditional mode, he did.  The Marsh Chapel choir, soon to sing with Mick Jagger, resplendent, redolent at Baccalaureate.  The thrilled celebration of hooding like that of the theology school here in the Chapel.  Music from ‘A Chorus Line’—perhaps generationally specific in thrill—with the Boston Pops.  A magnificent Advisory Board meeting with a world class presentation on global health.  Greek and Latin orations, from memory, in the original, at the BU Academy graduation, with a fine sermon given there, on ‘closing the opportunity gap’ on the text, ‘to whom much is given, from him much is required’ in St. Luke.  All these and others were wonderful and more than wonderful.

 

But come with me to an out of the way, smaller gathering, and a particularly powerful one every year.  For us, the most meaningful graduation moment each year is not under the big tent but among several dozen in Faneuil Hall, where 20 or so soldiers are commissioned as second lieutenants.  In crisp attire and crisp liturgy, young men and women assemble before the portraits of Sam Adams, John Hancock, and George Washington, in the cradle of the cradle of liberty.  “The President of the United States has placed his trust and confidence…” “Do you promise to preserve, protect, and defence…”  Then the loved ones—parents, or siblings or spouses—place the apulets upon the commissioned officers, sending them potentially into harm’s way for our sakes.  Freedom is not free.  To see mom and dad, brother and sister, husband and wife struggling to get the shoulder boards in place, every May, is the marrow of commencement, where a courageous present enters an uncertain future.  This year—by apocalypse came the gospel said Paul—one fine woman was aided by two other young women, her sister—and her partner.  In Boston, Faneuil Hall.  Before Adams, Hancock, and Washington.  She is going to place herself in mortal danger for us.  And we are going to question her practice of love?  It was a very full moment, an apocalypse if you will.  A touch of grace.

Montreal

 

By May 22, after the last of 27 different Commencement events for us, this the gracious retired faculty and staff association luncheon, an organization long chaired by two Marsh Chapter stalwarts, pointed the car due north toward ‘le Europe prochain’, Montreal, the Europe next door, the second largest French speaking city in the world.  A BU class was there arranged on urban mission and ministry.  While students pondered the pattern and significance of the work of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, and his emphasis on ‘belonging’, his longing for belonging, and remembered our own decade in and out of Quebec.  The Faculty of Religious Studies Birks Building, pristine and waxed and gothic and beautiful and summer empty, welcomed us with open arms.  Part school part church, part library part chapel, part study part sanctuary, part office part altar, part lectern part pulpit, part mind part heart.  The current faculty, many friends—Green, Kirkpatrick, Aiken, Baum, Hall, Golberger, Henderson, Sharma, Pettem—had place there books on display, and their faces restored a part of our being.  Our friends give us back ourselves.   Shadows, shades of memory greeted us too.  NT Wright, in 1981, in chapel announcing the death of Anwar Sadat.  Dean Eric Jay, long retired, admitting that the early church rejected patri-passianism, ‘but just barely’.  Dean RBY Scott, whose hymn we sing here.  Deans Johnston, Mclelland, and Runnells, Johnston stating at a oral that Q was a missionary, teaching tract.  Wilfred Cantwell Smith, like Howard Thurman, more than 100 years ahead of his time more than fifty year ago.  The day of registration and of defense and of graduation.  Forms of real contest at a time of young hope, fear and life.  The Canadian self-deferential self mockery, of which we could use a steady dose here:  ‘We could have had the best of British culture, French cuisine, and American government, but we got instead British cuisine, French government, and American culture’.  Funny, but not true, expect in the tone of self deprecation.

 

When GB Caird came to McGill he spoke of the Unity of the New Testament, and in his portrait we saw resembled  a Methodist minister, Dr Thomas Ogletree.  Tom is nearly 80.  Let me  describe him for you:  courtly, gracious, soft spoken white bearded, grandfatherly, bespectacled.   The former dean of Yale Divinity, and athe other of much of the theological substance in our current UM Book of Discipline.  I expect that if you look in the dictionary to find the definition o ‘Christian gentleman’, you will discover his photograph.  Last year he solemnized the marriage one of his five children, a son—to another man.  Now the winds of reaction, abetted by the mistaken misguidance of the current general superintendent in NY, are bringing him to trial.  The measure of our current failure to live up to the much ballyhooed Methodist tradition of social justice and holiness, can no more accurately be taken than by this dark image of Ogletree on trial before Methodism.  ‘Al contraire’ we thought in Montreal.  It is Ogletree who has brought Methodism to trial, not the reverse.  Here he is—gentle, forebearing, honest.  A touch of grace.

Syracuse

Our Annual Conference in Syracuse concluded yesterday.  Among many other earthly delights it included a fire alarm—no harm, no injuries—during opening worship.  Imagine 1500 Methodists fleeing and stampeding out of a convention center, ‘fleeing from the wrath to come’.  No flames, just apocalyptic mirth and moments in the sunshine for fellowship, and for conference.  It was also a truth moment.  A fire alarm is ringing, right now, across Methodism.   Since 2010 from Albany to Buffalo my beloved conference has lost 11% of its people.  For those under 45, the disaffection is highly specific.  We refuse to affirm the full humanity of gay people.  Can we be surprised that people of conscience go elsewhere?  What kind of future could you honestly want or expect for an excluding denomination?  During the fire alarm, I took the occasion to find and meet a pastor from Binghamton, whose blog post I had read the week before.  I close with Stephen Heiss’s words, for they are truly my very own:

 

To Bishop Mark Webb, my brother in Christ!

In the spirit of the One who said the truth will set us free, and emboldened by the freedom given by grace for which Jesus lived and died, I want and need to share with you how God has led me (and many of our colleagues) in ministries to help set at liberty those who have been held captive by the tyranny against people who are gay.

In the last few years I have officiated at several weddings for brothers and sisters who are lesbian or gay. One of those weddings—the highlight of my ministry—was for my own daughter and the woman who is now her wife. They are so happy!

Further, much to my delight, I have plans to officiate in the near future at yet another wedding for two women, that their joy may also be complete.

Bishop Webb—the long bitter era of scorn and hatred against gay people is dissolving before our very eyes. Christ has broken down the walls.

Those who have lived within the law and those who have lived outside the law are sitting down together at the table of grace.

The parable of the Kingdom of God as a wedding banquet has become an event in real time for hundreds of gay couples across our state. Finally, like the guest list in Jesus’ parable, those on the outside are invited to the inside of God’s grace.  They must come!

Nevertheless, some yet refuse the invitation.

They make excuses.

They cite Scriptures, yet offer no interpretive principle by which their claims are validated.

They prefer the “tradition of the elders” to Jesus’ teachings about “not judging the other.”

They screen for the gnats of sexual correctness while the elephants of consumer materialism, environmental degradation, and global starvation pass right by, completely unnoticed.

We cannot judge them, of course, for they too are given grace.

Who among us can say we have always accepted every invitation toward grace and away from judgment?

And so, grace abounds!

Further, the harvest of that grace is found everywhere—even in the church!

With regard to homosexuality, we who count ourselves as United Methodists have been wandering in the wilderness of uncertainty about all things gay for 40 long years.  Now the Promised Land is coming into view.

During those 40 years we have attempted to trap gay folks in nets of shame.

We stalked them with bible verses.

We legislated against them – whereas this, and whereas that.

We sent them to trials.

In righteous rage we lifted stones against them.

Now, in our own time, we are dropping those stones, one by one -

at first -  mothers, dads, sisters, brothers, school mates, talk show hosts, the neighbor next door.

We were learning.

Then—psychologists, pediatricians, sociologists, school teachers, neuro-scientists, biologists, counselors.

We were learning.

Then—Anglicans,  Episcopalians, Lutherans, United Churches of Christ, Presbyterians, Reformed Jews.

We were learning.

And now – baseball players, bible scholars, theologians, professional ethicists, Sunday school teachers, pastors . . .

and bishops.

We are learning.

We are finally learning that

being gay harms no one.

No one.

No one.

We are learning it is not a sin to be gay nor was it ever “incompatible with Christian teaching”.

We are learning that it is really OK with God if one is gay -

(just as eating shrimp is OK,  regardless stern biblical injunctions to the contrary!)

And so a new circle is forming.

A new circle is being created,

and it is being drawn wide.

A circle of understanding.

A circle of compassion.

A circle of truth.

The complex name for that circle might be:

“the fellowship of those who are no longer

throwing stones at people just because

they happen to be gay, lesbian,

bisexual or transgender”

A simpler name for that circle might be:

“those who are trying to live in the light of God’s grace”

But the name of the circle I most hope for, is this one:

The United Methodist Church

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