Archive for August, 2013

The Sermon on the Mound

Sunday, August 25th, 2013

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Out on the Massachusetts Bay, in the autumn of 1630, Governor Jonathan Winthrop spoke to frightened pilgrims, half of whom would be dead before spring.  One can try to imagine the rolling of the frigate in the surf, out on the Atlantic.  One can feel the salt breeze, the water wind of the sea.  The Governor is brief, in his sermon for the day:  “We must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill.  The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world”.  A remarkable, truly remarkable warning, to our country, at the moment of its inception.

 

It is a cold day in early March, 1865.  Four score and eight years after Independence, the nation has indeed become, as Winthrop prophesied in his Boston sermon, “a story and byword through the world”.  600,000 men will  have died by the time Lee and Grant meet at Appomatox, approximately one death for every 10 slaves forcibly brought to the New World.  This day in March, Mr. Lincoln delivers his own sermon, to the gathered and we may assume chastened congress.  It is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address:  “The Almighty has His own purposes…Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.  Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of  blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.

 

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work that we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

 

Into the next decade the state of Mississippi will spend 20% of its annual budget, each year, for artificial limbs.  Lincoln himself will die within weeks.

 

Now we witness another gathering,  and we hear another sermon.  A hundred more years have past.  It is August 28, 1963, a sweltering day in the nation’s capitol.  Hundreds of thousands of women and men have gathered within earshot of Lincoln’s memorial, and within earshot of his Second Inaugural.  They have come—maybe some of you were there—with firmness in the right as God gives to see the right, to strive to finish the work.  A Baptist preacher captures the moment in ringing oratory:  “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood.”

 

Winthrop.  Lincoln.  King.  1630. 1865. 1963.  These are the  three greatest sermons ever preached in our country’s history.   Do you notice that not one of them was delivered in a church?  Yet they all interpret the church’s Gospel to the land of the free and the home of the brave.

 

Winthrop.  Lincoln. King.   They believed in God’s providence. They trusted, through terror, in God’s favor. They thought that persons, even they themselves, had roles to play in the divine drama.

 

They warned of tragedy, they endured tragedy, they honestly acknowledged tragedy.  What Winthrop prohesied, and what Lincoln witnessed, and what King attacked is our national tragedy still.   We still judge, by the color of skin and not by the content of character.

 

But God has not left us, nor does God abandon God’s children.  God works through human hearts, to bind up the nation’s wounds.  It is the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and this alone, which will bring peace.  The church has nothing better to do, nothing other to do, nothing more important to do, nothing else to do than to preach.  Preaching is everything, the whole nine yards.  Let others be anxious and fretful over much service:  you are a Christian—sit at Christ’s feet and lisp his Gospel to others.  For when the Gospel is rightly preached and rightly heard, heaven invades earth.

 

The best preaching happens beyond church.  Some is spoken and some is lived.  Said Franklin, teaching the only two values he thought important—industry and frugality: “none preaches better than the ant, and he says nothing”.   We are not so much resident aliens as dual citizens.

 

There is a godly love of country, a measured patriotism,  a tempered sense of national identity, that can save.  Today we have almost none of it left.  Those on the right have been dangerously infected by authoritarian neo-fascistic ideas and emotions that have no place before the cross.  Those on the left have mistakenly assumed that one could somehow exempt oneself from the national identity, have no national poetry, no healthy patriotism, no common faith with which to bow before the cross.

 

We have no choice about common identity, national character, love of country.  Listen to Winthrop and Lincoln and King.  What we have some limited influence over is the nature, the type, the relative health of such.  Notice the Beatitudes, how the blessing fall on groups.  Blessed are those…

 

I believe there is at least one saving story from which, over time, we may gain strength and insight for our common story, poetry and preaching.  What Whitman said about poetry is doubly true for the Gospel itself:  “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem…Here at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and the night…Really great poetry is always the result of a national spirit, and not the privilege of a polished and select few the strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung.”  Here is what a godly love of country can do.

 

This year, without much fanfare, we passed the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entrance into major league baseball.  The armed forces were still legally segregated.  So were public schools. That was America in 1947 when a tee-totaling Bible quoting Republican from Ohio integrated major league baseball.  Who remembers today the lone ranger type—so decried in church circles today—who spent most of a lifetime working for one transformation.  Rickey was taught the Gospel in the Methodist church of that time where there was to be no separation, like that we have today, between a deep personal faith (conservative) and an active social involvement (liberal).  Rickey was one of those people who just never heard that “it can’t be done”.  For thirty years, slowly, painstakingly, he manuevered and strategized and planned and brought about the greatest change in the history of our national pastime.  IT CAN BE DONE.  Go to Cooperstown this summer and see the story unfold.  There is sermon on the mound, preached in life, brought to voice through one lone Methodist, in one lone lifetime, in one lone sport, in one lone generation.  IT CAN BE DONE.  But you need a preacher, like Rickey: “I prefer the errors of enthusiasm to the reticence of wisdom”

 

Where is the Branch Rickey of Wall Street?

Where is the Branch Rickey of the local church?

Where is the Branch Rickey of the public school?

Where is the Branch Rickey of your neighborhood?

Where is the Branch Rickey of the urban\suburban

split in Monroe County?

Where is that secular saint who doesn’t realize it can’t be done?

Where is the preacher of the next sermon on the mound?

Maybe she is here today.  Maybe you are she.

 

I heard William McClain, an African American preacher, tell about growing up in Tuskegee Alabama. He grew up listening to the team Branch Rickey fielded in Brooklyn.  “When Jackie stood at the plate, we stood with him.  When he struck out we did too.  When he hit the ball we jumped and cheered.  When he slid home, we dusted off our own pants.  When he stole a base, he stole for us.  When he hit a home run, we were the victors.  And he was spiked we felt it, a long way away, down south.  He gave us hope.  He gave us hope.”

 

Don’t let people tell you things can’t change for the better.  They can.  This country can work.  We just need a few more Branch Rickeys and a few sermons on the mound.

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

 

The Courage to Live Eternally

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

1John 2:12-17; Luke 23:39-42

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Two others died on crosses with Jesus that Friday, according  to Luke.

 

The old translations of the Bible mistranslated the Greek word used to describe them so Christian legend came to call them thieves. Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is now number one on everybody’s best seller list.

 

Aslan is right that the two men who died on crosses with Jesus were not thieves but probably zealots and revolutionaries. Today we might call them –this is my word not Aslan’s– today we might call them insurgents.

 

Insurgents are patriots who fight against occupying forces much more powerful than they are. They fight not to win battles, which would be a lost cause, but because they hate oppression and they hate the oppressors and they hate those who collaborate with oppressors.

 

Israel was occupied by the Roman Empire so militarily advanced that Israel could never defeat them in battle but, lost cause or not, the most radical zealots fought and maimed, wounded and killed whenever and wherever they could.

 

The zealots hated the Romans. The Romans hated the zealots. The Romans reserved for zealots the worst, most painful, most humiliating form of punishment: execution by crucifixion.

 

As Reza Aslan argues, the two others dying on crosses near Jesus were most likely zealots. Aslan emphasizes their passion for social justice. He does not emphasize that they probably would have had the blood of Romans and Israelite collaborators on their hands.

 

In Luke’s story of the conversation between the zealots and Jesus, the crowd who’d come to watch the crucifixions is mocking Jesus and one of the zealots joins them. He mocks Jesus. The other zealot sides with Jesus. He says to the first zealot: You and I are guilty of what we are accused of doing and and deserve our punishment. But Jesus has done nothing wrong and does not deserve to die like this.

 

This second zealot says to Jesus: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Part of the reason Luke tells this story is because he wants to convince us that even though he died the death of a zealot, Jesus was not one. There was no blood on Jesus’ hands. Instead his blood is our hands … all we who crucified him or stood by and did nothing, do nothing. This is Luke’s point.

 

So the controversy that Reza Aslan raises in his book is not a new one. Luke was already trying to address it in his gospel written only a generation or so after Jesus’ death.

 

What particularly interests me this morning is Jesus’ response in Luke’s story to the second zealot who asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom.

 

Jesus answers: “Amen, I tell you that today you will be with me in paradise.”

 

Today you will be with me in paradise.

 

There is a sermon I have been trying to preach for a number of years now. It is a sermon a member of my church back in Washington, DC, asked me to preach.

 

She was a fascinating person as so many of those who attend my church are. As a young woman she had been recruited to Washington when the federal government was growing rapidly and every office was looking for young intelligent single women to move to DC to be secretaries because they needed someone to, well, actually do the work.

 

She had grown up in a small rural town in the south, studied at a local small Christian college for a year or two. She was very bright. Someone in Washington knew someone at her college; she wanted to see the world. She ended up in Washington organizing the calendar and life of someone important in the government.

 

She never married but over the years she developed a wonderful community of friends who became her family: People from the apartment building she lived in, people from the little pub where she spent Friday nights.

 

A gay friend from the pub first brought her to our church. I mention this only because it amused her so that a gay man was the one to bring her back to church. She once told me her friends were all the people the church she grew up in had told her never to associate with: people of different races and nationalities, gay people, people who had been divorced, people who were a bit cynical and who liked to tell slightly risqué jokes, people who would have been lonely without each other.

 

One day the friend she attended church with called to tell me that she had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. She had only months to live.

 

I called to ask if I could visit. She said she didn’t really need me to visit. She had friends to talk to. She didn’t really need me in her living room, she said.

 

But, if I wanted to do something for her, she said, this is what I could do: I could preach a sermon on a certain topic. The topic she wanted me to preach a sermon about was what happens after we die.

 

Her request left me fairly speechless. This is not what we focused on in the seminary next door to this chapel when I attended it. What happens after we die?

 

She has long since died and I trust knows more about the answer to her question than I do, but I have been trying to preach her sermon ever since in one form or another … without much success. But I keep trying, especially when I get a new audience to try to talk about it with, like you.

 

For a religion based on the story of a resurrection, the Bible really has relatively little to say about what happens after we die and what it says is not very systematic nor frankly is it very consistent.

 

The Gospel of John quotes Jesus saying his Father’s house has many dwelling places and he will go to prepare a place for us. His disciples get confused during this conversation and, as so often happens with the Gospel of John, when I try to study the passage too literally I get confused too. (John 14:1-9)

 

Already at the time the Bible was being written people –even Christians– were having a hard time with the idea of resurrection. What is it exactly that is resurrected? The Apostle Paul tries to explain it. The dead will be raised imperishable. The perishable must put on imperishability and the mortal must put on immortality. (I Cor. 14:35-58) Unpack that.

 

Paul finally admits that for now we see only through a mirror dimly. For now we know only in part. (I Cor. 13:12)

 

In the Book of Revelation, which you’d think might be the most helpful part of the Bible on this topic, we don’t even go to heaven so far as I can tell. Heaven comes down to earth. (Rev. 21:1-7)

 

The writer of the First Epistle of John is the most honest and vulnerable and agnostic — What we will be has not yet been revealed, he writes. What we do know is this: When he is revealed, we will be like him. (I John 3:2)

 

Other religions seem much more knowledgeable and concrete. Tibetan Buddhism describes exactly what happens to us during the first 49 days after we die.

 

Vedic Hinduism’s Garuda Purana describes what happens after we die in perfect detail including the dark tunnel we pass through as our soul moves from our old body to our new body. The direction we travel in the tunnel is due south.

 

The Koran says we will enter heaven through one of eight doors depending on which of eight religious practices we prioritized during our life on earth.

 

Our Bible, in contrast, seems to give us only hints and poetry.

 

Which is why as I decided to try this sermon one more time I came to focus on Jesus’ words to the zealot on the cross. Jesus says to him “Amen. I tell you that today you will be with me in Paradise.”

 

The word Paradise appears only three times in the New Testament. It is a word, scholars tell us, that has a different connotation than heaven. Heaven is a reference to fulfillment, completion, culmination, resolution, the end. Heaven is when and where God’s will is finally fully and completely done.

 

Paradise is a reference backwards … back to the garden … back to Eden … back before history began … before Cain murdered Abel (Gen. 4:8) … before Hamor raped Dinah (Gen. 34:2) … before Shem made Canaan his slave Gen 9:25) … before we learned prejudice and racism and sexism and homophobia and xenophobia and greed and dominion and the fear that if I share with you there may not be enough left over for me.

 

Jesus says to the zealot whose life is defined by oppression and hate but who reaches out in kindness to him as they hang on crosses together, today you will be with me where and when the world has not yet turned into what it has become.

 

He says: We are going back to before we were wounded and before we began wounding others until the whole world became a world of woundedness and violence. We are going back to the garden.

 

I am not sure. I don’t know. I don’t know if we are going forward towards heaven or backward towards Eden …  but there is something I find hopeful about the idea of being with Jesus in paradise. There is something appealing about the undoing of all we have done to hurt each other and to hurt the earth. There is something appealing about the undoing of all the pain I have caused, all the good I’ve left undone.

 

First John says: “The world and its desires are passing away but those who do the will of God live forever.” (I John 2:17)

 

The world and its desires are passing away.

 

Fred Buechner says people don’t pass away. It is the world that is passing away … the world and its desires. Hate is passing away. Greed is passing away. Ignorance is passing away. Prejudice is passing away.

 

The world and its desires are passing away but you and I –the you and I created by God in the garden to be companions to one another, the you and I before we began to murder and rape and enslave each other– the real you and The real me will live forever.

 

If I could preach this sermon to the woman who asked me to preach it I would tell her that the hate and fear the church she grew up in tried to teach her is passing away but the love she discovered with her gay, divorced, irreverent neighbors and her friends at the pub, this love she opened her heart to will never pass away.

 

Carol Zaleski in a lecture at Harvard reported that six years before his death America’s greatest philosopher William James received a questionnaire from one of his former students.

 

One of the questions was “Do you believe in personal immortality?”

 

James answered: “Never keenly, but more strongly as I grow older.”

 

The next question was: “If so, why?”

 

James answered: “Because I am just getting fit to live.”[i]

 

The world damages us so. Not the world God created; the world we have created.   It teaches us to hate those who hate us until we all hate each other. It teaches us to be suspicion of those who seem different from us until we are suspicious of everybody. It teaches us not to trust until we are all distrustful of each other.  It teaches us murder, it teaches us rape, it teaches us domination.

 

But, take courage,  because the world and its desires are passing away. Even the part of the world that lives inside of me and inside of you is passing away. Even the part of the broken, messed up world that lives inside of me and inside of you is passing away.

 

As we make our way back to the garden or forward to heaven, whichever it is, I so want to learn how to trust, how to forgive, how to accept forgiveness, how to be unreservedly generous, how to love with all my heart. On the day I die, I want to finally be ready to live.

 


[i] Carol Zineski, “In Defense of Immortality,” First Things (August/Septembver 2000) Find on the web at http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/in-defense-of-immortality-26.

 

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Pastor

Foundry UMC, Washington DC

 

Why Marriage Matters: The Church and Marriage Equality

Sunday, August 11th, 2013

Genesis 2: 18-25; Matthew 19:3-12

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After I graduated from Boston University School of Theology forty-one years ago and became a local church pastor if you’d told me that I would preach at Marsh Chapel during my last year of active ministry and that the topic I would choose to talk about would be marriage I would not have believed you.

Marriage was a routine part of the life of the church and my work as a pastor, usually more fun than funerals. We did premarital education and counseling with couples but we drew much more heavily on psychology and the social sciences than we did biblical studies or theology or ethics when we taught and counseled.

I am fairly amazed that I have spent so much time these last several years of my ministry trying to understand marriage biblically, theologically, and even politically.

It is in some part your fault, Massachusetts. In 2004 you became the first state in our nation to make same-sex marriage legal, and look what has happened since. Less than ten years later, marriage equality is now the law in 13 states, the District of Columbia, and five Native American tribes.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government must recognize and honor same-sex marriages conducted in states where they are legal.

A recent Gallup poll indicates that 52 percent of Americans would vote for a federal law that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

It seems increasingly likely what you began here in Massachusetts will eventually reach every state and beyond.

The argument in the courts and on the public square for marriage equality, put simply, is that marriage is a civil right and that we cannot constitutionally deny any group of people their civil rights.

Earl Warren writing the 1967 Loving v Virginia Supreme Court decision said: “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men” … and presumably by free women as well.

Legally, marriage is a civil right and so marriage equality for adults of all races, nationalities, genders, sexual orientations and identities is undeniable.

Since the principle of equality is rooted in the teachings of all of the Abrahamic religions, you might think the churches, synagogues, mosques and meetings of America would applaud another advance for justice.

This, of course, has not entirely been the case. There have been problems.

One problem is the Bible. The Bible simply always assumes that marriage is between a man and a woman or, in some cases, between a man and women. As the religious opponents of marriage equality like to say, there is no Adam and Steve in the Bible. It is true. There isn’t.

So to understand marriage equality people of biblical faith need to take a leap of theological deduction and imagination. We need to ask whether the Bible’s teachings about marriage are about anatomy and biology and physiology or whether they are about the quality of relationship between two people who love each other and want to make the profound commitment to each other that we call marriage.

It is a theological leap many find difficult and it is a leap, frankly, it would never have occurred to us to take …  except that we have known gay and lesbian couples who have demonstrated in their lives together this quality of love and commitment that is the ideal of marriage. It is because of them that we’ve needed to go back and read the Bible again and see if we can find room for them in the story.

I have tried to read and consider carefully the arguments of those who oppose marriage equality on the basis of biblical teachings. Most now acknowledge that the battle within the American culture is pretty well settled. They acknowledge the secular culture has changed its mind. The secular culture now accepts same-sex marriage.

But, they argue, the church needs to be counter-cultural. They argue that the church cannot allow the secular culture to redefine biblical teaching.

it seems to me this argument is based on the theological assumption that God is not present or at work within the culture, only within the church. The assumption is that the culture is godless while the church holds all godly truth. I find no substantial support for this way of thinking within Scripture or Christian tradition and certainly not experience.

Jesus says the wind blows where it chooses. (John 3:8) The spirit goes where it will.

Biblically God has always resisted being caged inside temple walls built by human hands. God’s very name is I am who I am and I will be who I will be. (Exodus 3:14)

The Gallup poll I mentioned that indicates that 52 percent of Americans would vote for a federal law that made same-sex marriage legal in all states has some other interesting data. Among those who said they rarely or never attend church or a house of worship, 67 percent said they would vote for same-sex marriage. Among those who say they attend church monthly or nearly weekly, 51 percent said they would vote for same-sex marriage. Among those who reported that they attend church weekly only 23 percent said they would vote for same-sex marriage and 73 percent said they’d vote against it.

I hate to say this but it may be a mistake to spend too much time in church. God is not contained within church walls nor within the covers of a book. God is in the world –at work in the culture– and only when we are listening to both the book and the world can we find a path toward understanding God’s will and way.

We come to church not because this is where God lives and we want to pay a visit. We come here to recall where God encountered us in our lives in the world last week and to prepare ourselves to meet God in the workplace, the classroom, the bowling alley, the bar, the ballpark in the week to come.

The theologian Karl Barth said that the preacher needs to have a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Christians need to pay attention to both the book and the culture.

Unless our experience in the world helps us always read the Bible anew, it becomes a dead book that keeps us buried in the ancient past instead of the story of a God of justice, inclusion, and love who helps us find our way into the future … a future the people who wrote the book would have never imagined but which they understand to be consistent with what they began as they watch us from heaven.

I serve a church in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC. We reflect our neighborhood. On an average Sunday, a fourth to a third of our congregation are openly gay and lesbian men and women.

We are part of a denomination that forbids same-sex commitment ceremonies or weddings. The rules say these ceremonies shall not be celebrated in our buildings or by our clergy.

Back before marriage equality came to the district we started doing what we called services to honor gay and lesbian committed relationships. Couples would come here to Massachusetts to be married or they would have private ceremonies in their homes where they exchanged vows and then we would have a public service in church to honor their commitment. We were careful not to celebrate until we’d left the building. We didn’t break the rules.

Then in the fall of 2009 friends started telling me that marriage equality was coming to the district. I went to my board and asked, “If it happens, what do we do?”

Clergy and congregations in my denomination had been punished in the past for doing same- sex weddings.  Pastors had been suspended or even defrocked, the ministries of congregations had been disrupted.

We were engaged in a dozen ministries in our community as well as trying to provide quality religious education for our children and youth and all the ordinary programs congregations do. We were working with others to end homelessness. We were engaged in global mission in Haiti. We were trying to address the ridiculously high incarceration rate of young African-American men in our city.

We didn’t want our ministries disrupted. And we had no desire to break any rules.

We started a congregational conversation that lasted for several months.

The conversation was a bit chaotic and confusing. We were all over the place in our thinking. No path ahead was emerging.

Then during yet another disjointed, somewhat frustrating, congregational meeting Doug stood up and walked to the front of the sanctuary. Doug of Sam and Doug. Known by everyone in the congregation. Between Doug and Sam they had served on countless committees and task forces and mission groups. They were faithful, generous, always offering their home for meetings. They were loving towards each other, caring towards others, especially the elderly and weak of the congregation.

Doug stood before the congregation and simply said “I want to be married in my church by my pastor.”

I want to be married in my church by my pastor.

The tone and direction of the conversation changed. We were no longer talking about theories or strategies or consequences. We were talking about Sam and Doug.

In September 2010, Foundry Church members adopted a policy of marriage equality by a vote of 367 to 8.

We just cannot read the Bible as though Sam and Doug do not exist. We cannot be the church as though Sam and Doug were invisible.

Marriage equality as the law of the land is good and right, but the struggle will not be over until it is settled in our faith communities.

While marriage is a civil legal status, it is more than that. We don’t go to our lawyers to marry us.   We go, most of us, to our priests, pastors, rabbis and imams.

The latest edition of the textbook Choices in Relationships: Introduction to Marriage and Family by David Knox and Caroline Schacht says that 80 percent of marriage ceremonies in America are conducted by clergy. A 2011 article[i] by Michelle Boorstein in the Washington Post suggests this percentage may be declining but the majority of Americans still go to a person they believe to be a man or woman of God to be married. Even those who don’t, Michelle Boorstein reports, still often include religious rituals in their ceremonies.

There is a deep intuition within us that marriage is more than just a secular legal contract. In the love and intimacy of marriage, even in the times of distance and disagreement and disappointment that we need to painfully work our way through, even in the experience of brokenness of a marriage … in the joys and struggles of marriage we experience something that is like the relationship between humanity and God. We know deep down that our marriages are not just legal but also holy and sacramental.

The creation story of Genesis 2 talks about the purpose of marriage. Genesis 2:24 and 25 say: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and they were not ashamed.”

The holy purposes of marriage are, first, to get you out of your parent’s home. Then –holiest of all– it is to give you someone to hold on to … to cling to in bad times, to hug in good times, to hold on to when holding on is hard … to give you someone to become one flesh with even as your flesh grows old … and to give you someone to be naked with without shame.

How could we be so unimaginative, so incapable of translation and deduction, so densely literal that we would deny such a holy marriage to Sam and Doug? If we don’t start doing it, the rocks in the walls of our buildings will start putting on our robes and stoles and doing weddings themselves.

Jesus said it — Those whom God has joined together, let no one separate.

 


[i] Michelle Boorstein, “More couples pick friends to preside at weddings,” Washington Post, Sept. 16, 2011.

~The Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Pastor

Foundry United Methodist Church, Washington DC

 

Summer Grace

Sunday, August 4th, 2013

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Sometimes we arrive in worship with a personal, compelling need. We find our familiar pew. We turn at the appointed hour to the radio frequency. We enter a spirit of prayer. Sometimes we bring, or are brought by, a compellingly particular concern.

 

In fact, on many occasions of return to worship, after a hiatus, or an absence, or a distance, we come trying to sort something out. We are, after all, ‘persons becoming persons’ as Carlyle Marney used to say, and well say. We are in the process of becoming who we are, bit by bit, trouble by trouble, hurt by hurt, scrape by scrape. The more irregular rhythms of the summer, with its heat spots and rain storms and family visitors and office coverages, can sometimes become a kind of summer grace, allowing us to recollect, to reckon with our souls, to seek a summer grace in Word and Table, preaching and sacrament.

 

Sometimes the malady is major. Our dearest friendship can come in danger, if we do not keep our friendships in good repair. You may come to work to discover that an office mate, a trusted friend, whose friendship you may have taken for granted, has felt unappreciated, and so has gone on to greener pastures, now that there are a few more jobs around from which to choose—not enough, just a few more. Or a regular summer picnic may reveal an absence, someone whose presence you expected, and missed. You may come some Sunday, having realized on Saturday night that your marriage, seemingly so solid, has revealed a human but painful fracture. A most painful weight to bear, for sure. Our reading from Hosea, the loveliest passage in the Hebrew Scripture, comes from a book in the Bible written straight of the pain of infidelity. It can be a ready reassurance to hear that for a long time, and in the heart of sacred writing, there is a shared experience, for yours, the deep recognition of deep hurt. Hosea even makes of his own pain a way to understand the gracious, lasting, love of God—‘my compassion grows warm and tender’. In the cup and bread today, for you, there is a summer grace, a personal honesty about pain but also a personal witness to endurance. You can get through this. ‘I am the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy’.

 

Sometimes the trouble is a shared trouble, a time of trouble, a time in trouble. The poets often will warn us, even a decade in advance. So TS Eliot wrote The Wasteland in 1922, and envisioned 1932 and 1942. We disregard our poets to our peril. So summer can be a good time to remember them, and to memorize the biblical poetry of the psalms. In Robert Raines’ family the children were prized with a soda when they had memorized a psalm. Is that bribery or is that good parenting? Or both?  When we realize that at some deep level, the moorings are loosened in our community or culture, then we may come to church a little dazed, a little unbalanced, not quite sure why. Thirsty, in a way, hungry, in another way. I have been preaching and teaching through the summer, and regularly people will ask about Boston. How are you? How are things there? They are not referring—usually—to Whitey Bulger, or even—usually—to the Red Sox. One woman from the Midwest was wearing a shirt that said ‘Boston Strong’. As a guest preacher I usually say something general in response, using a collected vocabulary—‘pretty well…good people…very resilient…courageous women and men…yes, Boston Strong.’ But as a pastor I also have other thoughts, not so easily expressed in a less familiar setting. Yes, strong. But we also have our forms of wandering, as the psalmist puts it. We also know about the soul fainting, as the psalmist puts it. A photo of an innocent middle aged woman, now legless, is all it takes, at least for me, to recognize the truth of the Scripture and its repeated emphasis on cries in trouble. Not only sorrow, but anger, not only grief, but very human rage will bring us to the desert. It takes time, real time, and a long time, to process trauma, and when you least expect it, the desert can envelope you. That may bring you to listen to a sermon, or attend a church, to hunt out again the lasting love of God. If nothing, no one else: ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever’. Boston Strong? Maybe Boston Getting Stronger?

 

Sometimes the trouble is amnesia. I am getting to the point that I need a solution or two to daily amnesia. Where are my glasses? Keys? Sermon notes? I should say, when I lay them down, ‘I am putting my glasses on the bureau’. But we know a bigger, that is to say, a real sort of amnesia, too, that sometimes sits right with us in the pew, right beside us in the arm chair. What am I doing here? What is the point of all this struggle? I seem to have lost my way. I find it greatly comforting, on a daily and weekly basis, to see that in the very marrow of the Scripture, my wandering forgetfulness is known, shared, experienced, addressed. The recognition of a lost path, a way forgotten, an amnesia about something that really matters—this too is a summer grace. The student of Paul who honored Paul by writing pseudonymously a letter to the Colossians in his name had us in mind here, or had this in mind at least, our amnesia. Remember: you have been raised. Remember: seek the good big high great things. Remember: your life is hid with Christ in God. Remember: you are wearing a new nature, a renewed nature, which connects you in love to every other. ‘Christ is all, and in all.’

 

Then sometimes, too, the unexpected arrives, supplanting security with radical change, unplanned and unforeseen. A good morning to listen to the radio service, or, better, to find your way to church can be this very moment of cataclysm. It is only sparing help to recall that many others in the history of the race have woken up, suddenly, to discover that all the barns full of grain carefully and responsibly stewarded cannot get us past a great loss, a loss of life, a loss of self, a loss of soul. Faith is only faith when it is all you have left to go on. (repeat) Then it is faith, for that is what we mean by faith, walking ahead into the dark. Sometime go through the pages of the Scripture and just watch for the number of occasions when the people in the Bible are suddenly and unexpectedly accosted with trouble, through no fault of their own. In St Luke today, the man is a prosperous farmer. But in other spots he is a favorite son thrown in a pit, a patriarch wrestling with a demon, a leader dying in a cave, a scout frightened by grasshoppers, a prophet unheeded until too late, an Apostle who knows about a thief in the night, a disciple who thought his betrayal would go unnoticed, a king who expects wrongly that his son will be honored, a father whose son leaves home, an honest worker who loses his job, a woman who has to plead until blue in the face before a judge who could not care less. And then:  a Savior, a man of compassion, an embodiment of love, a healing teacher, a Lord, a Messiah—crucified. In the summer, for us, sometimes, it can be restorative to see that we have company on the days when night falls early. ‘One’s life does not consist in an abundance of possessions’. Or positions.

 

Right now our land and landscape are covered with a vast carelessness. A vast carelessness regarding the poor. A vast carelessness regarding the children of the poor. A vast carelessness regarding the other—otherwise oriented, otherwise abled, otherwise viewed. We have made some headway, by the Dow measurement anyway, in the building of better barns. (Nor should we, nor do I diminish the importance of bodily, physical, fiscal health.) But the parable today though brutally admonishes us that love is for the wise. The body is not the soul. Fool! Today your SOUL is required.

 

This month, later this month, we shall remember Martin Luther King’s great sermon from 50 years ago. August 28, 1963, a sweltering day in the nation’s capital. It was indeed a soul, a soulful moment. Some of you listening, some perhaps present, were there. Most have heard King’s words, more than once.  His was a life ‘rich toward God’. How? How so? What shall we recall fifty years hence? In its remembrance, this month, will our souls come alive that we might be rich toward God? Remember…

 

First, that King was a preacher. He was a preacher first and last. His words, rhetoric, angle of vision were formed in the life of the Christian church, the black church, the pulpit. Taylor Branch tells of an intense Sunday afternoon meeting, King and colleagues, when a knock came at the door. There, an older woman, in Sunday clothes, carrying a basket. She came with something to eat—chicken and biscuits I believe. And they stopped, the planning stopped, the work stopped. She had brought something for the preacher. It was a summer grace to receive it, as is our communion. Today. King was not first an academic, an organizer, a teacher, a prophet, a social leader. He was a preacher. May that be for those of you considering such a calling—then higher in status and lower in stress, now lower in status and higher in stress—a hard vocation, that is, one worth doing—leave the easier things for others, may that be an encouragement to you of what such a calling can mean. Marsh Chapel has every reason to commend and recommend King as a preacher. Further, the series this summer, the primary preachers from the primary northern Methodist pulpits, is meant as a sign for the future when the collapse of general agencies, general conferences, general superintendencies, and generalized discipline will give way, as it is already doing, to real, vocal, preached, pulpit leadership, like that represented in Foundry Church, Washington DC, Christ Church, NYC, Asbury First, Rochester, and Marsh Chapel, Boston.

 

Second, King was a personalist. That is, he was formed in the philosophical theology of Boston University, Boston personalism. Border Parker Bowne, Edgar Brightman—the quintessential, even revelatory uniqueness of the human personality as a clue to the divine. Now in our more naturalist age, personalism is less known, less favored. But you can hear it in King when, in Letter from Birmingham Jail, he talks about the clouds and dimness he sees in his little daughters’ eyes as they are told that they are not welcome in Funtown, an amusement park. We are all persons becoming persons. The freshmen who come here in a few weeks were all of eleven years old seven years ago when we began our Marsh Chapel work. They are persons, in whose personalities there is a reflection, a revelation of the divine. But they are far from formed, as are we all. Mature in body, perhaps, but not yet in soul. Sent with such high hopes—theirs, their parents’, their schools’, their siblings’. King battled a vast cultural carelessness because of the effect on personality such carelessness has.

 

Third, King worked at a profound depth. Notice in his sermon that he speaks of dream, not of ‘a really good idea’. That is the sermonic difference between the right word and the almost word, between truth and falsehood, death and life, inspiration and desperation. But there is something for us today, this summer, much harder and truer to his profundity. King was able to speak in a way that gathered a true solidarity to his cause, the cause of civil rights, racial justice, not later, but now. You hear it and recall it in phrases, ‘not by the color of skin but by the content of character’. His voice brought inspiration and solidarity to a movement. But that was not all. He also somehow had the magic and mysterious spirited rhetoric to evoke more than solidarity, to evoke community. That is, he was able to gather under the wings of his words those, even those, who may not at the moment have agreed with him. Not just solidarity to a cause. But hope, a dream of a beloved community, too. Now that is genius. You hear it in phrases. ‘That on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave holders will sit down at the table of brotherhood’. Not just solidarity for those who now agree, but the hope of community we those who are not yet with us. I wish I could find the tongue in our time, facing our own issue of humanity and justice, that of the full humanity of gay people, to do the same. Maybe one day that will come…

 

Sometimes we arrive in worship with a personal, compelling need. We find our familiar pew. We turn at the appointed hour to the radio frequency. We enter a spirit of prayer. Sometimes we bring, or are brought by, a compellingly particular concern.

 

You may come with a fractured relationship.

 

Draw near in faith, and take this holy sacrament, this summer grace, to your comfort.

 

You came as a still wounded city, not so much strong as getting stronger.

 

Draw near in faith, and take this holy sacrament, this summer grace, to your comfort.

 

You may come with amnesia about your salvation already wrought in Christ.

 

Draw near in faith, and take this holy sacrament, this summer grace, to your comfort.

 

You may come in the throes of a mortal struggle between body and soul, bigger barns and a farther shore, carelessness and care.

 

Draw near in faith, and take this holy sacrament, this summer grace, to your comfort.

 

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean