Dean Hart once reminded us: Jesus is our beacon not our boundary.
In a Chinese restaurant at 110th street and Broadway, April 1978, George Todd hired us to work at the World Council of Churches in Geneva Switzerland. “Heat, light, running water—that is what I need, basic support work”, he barked. His favorite verse was from 1 Peter 5: ‘be sober, be watchful, your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour’. He usually smiled having recited the verse.
George had been one of the founders of the East Harlem Protestant Parish in New York, 20 years earlier. You want to know something about that lightning crash experiment in urban ministry, all things material in common, service to and with the poor, Acts 2:44, Presbyterians and others, at 110th on the other side of from our Chinese lunch. Thence he took several jobs, finally in the office of urban and industrial mission for the World Council. He, and later we, lunched there with Paolo Freire, Emilio Castro, Philip Potter, Connie Parvey. Jan was more useful to him than I, as it happens, for they needed music and piano in the mid-week worship service, held Wednesdays in that beautiful, hopeful, open space. He later confessed that he really hired young people, then, not so much for help but to plant seeds of goodwill for the future of the church, the future of the ministry, the future of the WCC. Something like our hidden strategy for staffing at Marsh Chapel. It worked. I mention him, I honor him, this morning, 35 years later. And I still mourn the tragic death of his son, Sam.
This year Marsh Chapel expands our mission, a heart for the heart of the city and a service in the service of the city, explicitly to span the globe. Our broadcast worship service, a if not the leading University Ecumenical Protestant weekly worship service in music, liturgy and homily in the world spans the globe. Our new chaplain for international students, Rev. Longsdorf, the first position of its kind in the country, spans the globe. Her students baked the bread for this morning’s eucharist. Our vocational offspring—Brian Hall in the middle east, David Romanik in Texas, Rebecca in South Africa—span the globe. Our paraments, chosen by Rev Dr Olson, help us recall the global character of our vocational offspring. Our emerging partnerships with the University of Tokyo, the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, and, yes, a UCC church in Miami Beach, span the globe. (That is the thing about Miami Beach: it is so close to the USA that you almost feel like you are in the country.) Yours, yes, is a mission in global community. But mainly in another way: yours is the announcement of a coastal grace. A coastal grace: freedom, peace, and love, from sea to shining sea. John Dewey wrote about a common faith. Howard Thurman preached about a common ground. You are announcing a common hope, from sea to shining sea. A coastal grace. And you don’t have to travel the globe to live a coastal grace. As my friend says, ‘I don’t have to drink the whole ocean to know that is salty’.
Now. I have a bone to pick with our undergraduates. A month ago you affirmed, I believe, you promised, I think, to get to the coast, to walk the beach, once a month during your time in Boston. You promised. Didn’t you? I think so. Even if it is just a T ride to Revere: go. See the horizon. Feel the salt breeze. Listen to the ocean and its roar. Many of you will never, never be so close to the coast, again. I guess, because I am a fresh water fish myself, I am unfairly passionate about it. You know, some people live in Buffalo, and never have seen Niagara Falls. Some people live in the Dakotas and never have seen the Black Hills. Some people live in Spain and have never tasted Rioja. Some people live in Kenmore Square and have never seen the Red Sox. And George Todd lived for a decade in Geneva, even visited Gruyere, I was with him, but never learned to like cheese. Go east, as far as you can. Walk down to the harbor, take a boat to Provincetown or Salem, while you can. Behold a coastal grace. While walking, memorize a psalm or two, like my favorite as it was Thurman’s, 139.
This land—yours and mine—desperately needs the vision, the memory, the perspective, and the world-view of the shoreline. ‘The greater the ocean of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery that surrounds it”, once said Ralph Sockman, OWU graduate in theater arts. A coastal grace. Here is beauty: the blue on blue line at the horizon, sky on sea, sea on sky, air on water, water on air, oxygen on hydrogen, hydrogen on oxygen, light on life, life on light. Here is goodness: if Norsemen in the 13th century could a sail a rowboat to this continent, there is potential, possibility, for us too. Here is truth: craggy truth, messy truth, quirky, oblique out of alignment truth. Here the land is not set out all in squares, the roads make no sense, except to follow the coast, things are not at right angles. There is difference, there is wetland, stone, cliff, ebb, flow, mist, all. And danger, dangers. See the Gloucester memorial: “Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters. They saw the deeps of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.” Your moral imagination, much needed today, in church and society, with which to address endless contention and intractable difference, will develop, will mature, in earshot of the tide. Not all issues fall out in 90 degree patterns, like cornfields in Iowa. The fresh water voices—I am such a fish remember—need the ocean spray, the salt breeze, the coastal grace that heightens a recognition of variety, yet along the great shoreline, the mighty horizon of hope, of beauty, truth and goodness, of hope. A common hope.
With others in communities around the globe, we gather at the Lord’s Table this morning. It is fitting the ‘wings of the morning, and the uttermost parts of the sea’—the coastal grace illumined in our favorite psalm—is balanced, as now we come to Table, with the reading from Luke 17. Your field work is not a substitute for your domestic duties, the gospel affirms. Your evangelism and outreach are not a substitute for your congregational tasks, the gospel affirms. Your horizon of hope and coastal grace are not in place of serving at table. Hope all you want, become a great leader of institution or three, good for you: all of it is no substitute for service in the Lord’s house. People have such shaky reasons for not going to church. You are to wait at the Lord’s table. To pray. To read. To go to church. To tithe. To invite someone else, once a week or once a month, to join you. To make sure all God’s children, all, are fed. Your service to the University as a chaplain or dean or professor is not a substitute for your service to God by serving your neighbor. You have domestic work to do. Right here. Come Sunday. Here, to remember some word that is true, in the joy of faith when grace is present. Here to greet someone who is good, in the joy of faith when grace is present. Here to hear something that is beautiful, in the joy of faith when grace is present. We walk past Sunday morning with a yawn and think we have all the time in the world. Not so. I celebrate your field work, your professional prowess, your vocational success, your straight A’s so far. They are not a substitute for your soul. ‘Le couer a sais raison que le raison n’comprende pas’. Timothy says much the same: yours is not a spirit of cowardice, but of power and love and self-discipline (interesting trio), and the promise is the very promise of life. And by the way, you don’t get a ransom for just doing your job—‘so you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘we are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done’. You don’t get to demand a ransom just for doing your job! (J)
When our work with George Todd ended in Geneva, we came back to New York. George sent us back with some domestic duties. A basket of them. (He carried his office around in plastic and paper bags, two or three together, brimming with books and papers). He said that he had learned in East Harlem that shoe leather was the most important part of ministry. Visit the people. Visit the people. Visit the people. That office in Switzerland dealt with world leaders who made requests. The month we were leaving one came from the Rev. Canaan Banana in Africa. I leave his story and biography, and what they say about Africa and Methodism, for another day and another sermon. In 1978 he had learned that his name was mentioned in a new book, Remarkable Names of Real People. Could someone get him a copy? So we got of the plane at JFK and the next day or so went down to 5th Ave and 18th street, where there was a big bookstore. And sure enough, there was a new book of the title identified. And many remarkable names. Cardinal Sin (Archbishop of Manila). Memory Lane. Shanda Lear. I. O. Silver. A. Moron. Groaner Digger (an undertaker). Preserved Fish (of New Bedford). Dr. Blood (an internist). Mrs. Toothacre (whose husband was a dentist). Nita Bath. Buncha Love. Katz Meow. Evan Keel. Horace and Boris Moros (twins). Solomon Gomorrah. Never Fail. And, page 77, Rev. Canaan Banana.
Friends, it is a big world. There are varieties within diversities within pluralities within multiplicities. Our country has a motto: e pluribus unum. Our New Testament shows us that in earliest Christianity diversity preceded unity. There are many ways of keeping faith. Many ways there are to keep faith. As that most liberal Gospel, of John, teaches: in my Father’s house there are many rooms…wherever there is a way, a little truth, a bit of life…there I AM. And there are many names by which faith is named. Including yours. The author of 2 Timothy remembers Eunice and Lois, by name. The book of life includes remarkable names of real people. Like you. We need maybe to remember that when we decide we want to box out some of the differences, and box out some who are different.
This is where a monthly walk along the seacoast can help. A big sky. A long shore line. A rolling tide. An infinite horizon. A wind, like the breath of God. A chance to look out! To look up! To look long! To look high!
I last saw George in 1983, along the seacoast in Vancouver. There was a big tent set up on a cliff, in the sunshine. I was late getting there. My Uncle David Laventhol, then editor of Newsday and creator of a New York Newday—‘truth, justice, and the comics’, had gotten me a press pass to attend. This was a General Assembly of the World Council of Churches. Philip Potter was set to preach. I had to stand in the back, under the drip line of the tent. On that coast, that day, people of faith from the world over stood to sing. But it wasn’t the singing of the words, it was the people singing the words that carried the grace: ‘In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love, throughout the whole wide earth. In Him shall true hearts everywhere their high communion find. His service is the golden chord close binding humankind.’
Jesus is our beacon not our boundary! He is not ours to measure, but gives the measure himself of all things, and to us, ‘not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace’.
O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me…
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel