Summer Grace

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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

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