Archive for November, 2013

A Thanksgiving Medley

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

Luke 23:33-43

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

         It is hard to think about Thanksgiving and not think of food in general and turkey in particular.  So attentive are we to the meal itself that the Thanksgiving prayer we offer becomes an afterthought, unless carefully we pause to think about a prayerful recipe for a real thanksgiving, a thanksgiving medley of nourishment both for body and for soul. The meal, the turkey, we leave to you.  But here, in sermonic guise, we offer a recipe for the prayer on Thanksgiving, a thanksgiving medley, a recipe, that is, for a thanksgiving prayer.

 

First, clean. To start, you might clean the outside of the prayer.  Pluck its feathers. Wash its torso.  Get rid of the fluff that does not feed anyway.  Especially this year perhaps we can dispense with the note of pride, of self-congratulation that so easily enters the heart.  ‘Lord I thank thee that I am not like other men—extortionists, liars, or even like this publican here’.  Jesus directly proscribed such prayer.  Pluck and clean and here is what you find.  Most of who we are and even more of what we have is pure gift.  Our genetic makeup.  Our history.  Our natural surroundings.  Our upbringing.  Our humors and talents.  Our religious tradition or lack thereof.  For all our vaunted independence, we depend, utterly depend, truly depend, we are deeply dependent for what counts:  for life, for forgiveness, for eternal life.  For all our vaunted enterprise, we have relied on others, and we have been shaped by others.  Is there a better city in North American in which to remember that than Boston?  As a city, as a people, as a nation, as a church, we are the creatures of the courage of others, who in one sense or another gave the last full measure of devotion.  Who are we kidding anyway?  Most of what we are and even more of what we have is pure gift.  As my friend says, ‘if you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you know he did not get there on his own’.

 

The Psalmist knew this.  ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for hehas looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them.

 

Paul of Tarsus also knew this.  “May you be made strong with the strength that comes from his glorious power.”

 

This is why the patterns of gratitude, day and week and month and year and all are so important to the soul.  Good for you.  You find a daily way to say a word of thanks or write a note of thanks to someone, somewhere, somehow.  Good for you.  You find a way to worship on Sunday, to bestir yourself and enter a community of faith, shoulder to shoulder with other unfeathered bi-peds, so that, if nothing else, in public you may say ‘thank you’—to God, to life, to others.  Good for you.  You find a way once a month to be in service, in mission.  Ministry is service.  Today our students and others gather at noon to pack meals for hungry children.  Tomorrow you may send off an extra thanksgiving check to the Philippines.  Good for you.  You find a rhythm, year by year, for arranging your finances to match hour values.  You give.  You give by percentage.  You tithe.  You make a plan and plan your giving and give by your plan.  Good for you.  You think hard and long about what your will, your end of life giving will be, and so model that dimension of spirituality for your children and others.  Maybe your estate itself will include a tithe.  Good for you.  A daily note, a weekly worship, a monthly service, a yearly gift, a concluding bequest—these are patterns of gratitude that shape the soul and heal the earth.  Good for you.  Be generous of spirit, like Abraham Joshua Heschel:

         Religion’s task is to cultivate disgust for violence and lies, sensitivity to other people’s suffering and the love of peace.

God is than religion, and faith is deeper than dogma.  Man’s most precious thought is God, but God’s most precious thought is man.

 

To give thanks means first to pluck the bird’s less generous, more self centered, less magnanimous feathers, one at a time.

 

Second, season.  Cleansed, our prayer is ready for a little seasoning.  Personal seasoning.  Real gratitude is real personal.  Prayer is intimate.  Prayer is personal.  Like a sermon.  Utterly personal.  Like a photograph.  Utterly personal.  A prayer of thanks is thanks for what makes a personal difference.  For a friend sent along by life’s surging current.  For a spouse met.  For a child.  For a child saved from death in a car accident.  For a lawsuit avoided or weathered.  For an assault survived. For a family fence mended.  For a vocation.  For a vacation.  For an exciting new job.  For breath, for breadth, for board.

 

The eternal flame, which Jacqueline B Kennedy imagined atop the president’s grave, is a flickering reminder to us all of what his tragically foreshortened life gave our common life.  I hope this holiday season that you will keep a sort of eternal flame flickering atop your life as well.  Our span of life, threescore and ten, upon this earth, is starkly brief.  Yet each soul carries an eternal flame, a lasting marrow, a heavenly destiny, a personal dimension.  You have an angelic prospectus.  You want to live, to speak, to choose, to act, to do—and especially to pray—with a recollection of eternity.  Under the aspect of eternity, sub specie aeternitatis.  Mrs. Kennedy, in the days following her husband’s murder 50 years ago, found the grace to send a handwritten note of condolence to the wife of a Dallas policeman who had also been killed in those same hours, by the same gunman.  There is an eternal flame flickering in such an act, in such a kindness, partly because it so personal.  “Others may not understand what you are going through” it seems to say, “but I surely do”.

 

We went north toward Montreal in 1981 to serve two little churches with two little children and too little money.  We went to Montreal in order to study for a PhD so that one day we could come to Boston and teach in the school of theology and preach in Marsh Chapel and offer pastoral care to an academic community of 40,000.  Be glad for what you do not have, for it is the doorway into what you will have.  That summer of 1981 we were given a car, and old red Ford Mustang convertible, anno domini 1973.  A real boat, v8, white top, black interior, and rust to the horizon.  Said the donor:  ‘it will last you 6 months.  Leave it in a field’.  It lasted 10 years.  It was such a thoughtful and such helpful gift—the right thing at the right time in the right way—that no words could ever convey our gratitude (Hart on gift).  No formal note—“Dear Aunt Esther, in life’s many vicissitudes it is so important to be made mindful of those who help…blah, blah, blah…’ No. Thanksgiving is a personal shout, a cry from the heart:  Thank You!

 

Alice Walker appeared on late night television a while ago.  She said two stunning things.  ‘At middle age’, she said, ‘I am learning to slow down so that whatever life intends for me will have an easier time catching up’.  Then, after minutes of complements for Nelson Mandela, and what he did for South Africa, she reflected:  ‘of course, he is a great leader, but the point is that each one of us is to be our own great leader’.  Personal. Personal. Very personal.

This is why our friends are so deeply, lastingly meaningful to us.  Our north country friend Max Coots wrote one Thanksgiving:

 

“Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

For children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are….

For generous friends with hearts and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we’ve had them;

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the other, plain as potatoes and as good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels Sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem Artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;

For all these we give thanks.”

 

 

A sermon does not conclude the preaching for the week.  A sermon begins the preaching for the week.  The point of a sermon is found in your active, personal articulation of faith.  In a journal.  In public speaking.  In a simple devotional at a meeting.  In the shower.  And, this Thursday, in a thanksgiving prayer.  Sit down ahead of time and right it out.  Make it personal.  Season it so.  Season it properly.  Find your tongue.  Season it personally.

 

Third, cook.  Cook the prayer.  Cook it in experiences of adversity. Let the adverse experiences of life make our prayer and our soul tender.  If nothing else, our own hurts make us more empathetic to others. One of my forebears in the ministry, long ago used this line and it has stuck.  It is nothing to remember a line for thirty years, when it is a real sentence: ‘Let the heat of adversity make us tender’.  Sometimes nothing else will.  This is a difficult point.  When I heard my friend utter the line, because I knew his experience, I wept.  There is no way finally to understand, let alone justify, the heat of life at its worst.  But we can pray that such adverse experience will humanize us, that such heat will make us tender.

 

Let the bird cook, simmer.  Cooking makes the bird tender.  Life’s heat can make us tender too, if we will allow the time and heat and patience to hold us.

 

Think again of Paul.  ‘Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us because the love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit that is given to us.’  Think again today of Christ, the Redeemer, who himself entered the darkest sphere of suffering, mocked as a common criminal but carrying through the cross, and the crosses of all life, a remembrance of paradise.

 

In the radio congregation today, and in the visible congregation today, there are many who know this well.  You have graciously preached this sermon in your own lives.  You have faced adversity and so become spiritually sensitive.  You have felt physical pain but have learned redemptively to manage your suffering.  You have suffered loss and survived.  You have managed suffering redemptively.  You have worn the ancient clothing:  ‘afflicted in every way but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed; and you do not lose heart, for though the outer nature is wasting away, the inner nature is being renewed every day’.  For all the heat, your Thanksgiving prayer this year will be most tender and most sweet.

 

Here is a Thanksgiving medley, a recipe for a prayer at Thanksgiving.  Clean it.  Season it. Cook it.  Cleanse it of pride.  Season it in person.  And allow the heat of adversity to make it tender.

 

It was this recipe that my BU religious life leaders on Wednesday perceived in Dean Howard Thurman’s exemplary prayer:

 

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

 

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood…

The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day

 

I finger one by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:

The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;

The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I

Feared the step before me in darkness;

The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest

And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;

The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open

Page when my decision hung in the balance.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

 

I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:

The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,

Without whom my own life would have no meaning;

The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;

The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp

And whose words would only find fulfillment

In the years which they would never see;

The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,

The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;

The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,

Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;

The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream

Could inspire and God could command.

For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day…

 

All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,

I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,

(Dear God), in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.

 

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

New Frontier

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

Luke 21: 5-19; 2 Thess. 3: 6-13; Isaiah 65: 17-25

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

 

1. Ford

In the Henry Ford Museum, near Detroit, you will find a remarkable assortment of Amerabilia.  Would you like to see Ford’s first automobile?  Its tiny little black wooden self greets you.  Do you remember the Edsel?  Here is one.  Have you spent time over the years in a Howard Johnsons—not recently, I know, but once on a time?  Here are signs for the restaurant and the ice cream and the motel.  Do you own a map of the country that features Route 66?  You will want one after this tour.  Did you ever see one of those amphibious cars, both auto and boat, with drive shaft and propellers?  The museum has one in baby blue.  What is it about that 57 Chevy?  One two tone, green and cream, greets you.

 

I did not plan to be personally moved in the car museum and was not moved.  Until the end.  At the end there is a procession of presidential automobiles, sort of Motor Force One, you could say.  One that TR used and with him Woodrow Wilson.  FDR had a great black one.  And Eisenhower, too.  I think they were all Lincolns.  Most of the detail, though, I forgot as I came to the 1963 version.  Now topped, not convertible.  Now bulletproof, not open.  Now shined, black and immobile, not dusty and scuffed and moving past a grassy knoll.  But right there, right blessed there.

A fine, long, black 1963 Lincoln Continental, the very best of American engineering, on the best of American roads, in the best of American cities, carried the best of American leaders…to his death.

 

What do you recall of November 22, 1963, almost exactly 50 years ago?

2. November

These gray days, late autumn days, with shifting light and shadow—they carry an uncanny significance.  Something in them.  Something in the naked tree limbs, grasping empty gray.  Something in the crisp air, foretaste of winter to come.  Something in the constant twilight.  Something of a cosmic sacrality lurks behind the dark maple limbs of November.

 

The naked limbs also recall the violent death of a young president.  Television and modern American violence have grown up together over forty years.   Our childhood introduction to violence.  To gun violence.  (It is striking that our current national conversation about gun violence makes so little reference to this formative, symbolic moment, involving a single shooter and a single rifle).  Women and men of one generation know where they were on November 22, 1963 at 2:00pm, like those of another generation recall December 7, 1941, and those of yet another will recall September 11, 2001.  They remember the hour the message came, the people who delivered the word, the reactions of family members, the atmosphere of the day, the hidden meanings, unspoken words, portents of the future which all were somehow connected to the dark maple limbs of that November.  One remembers:  the flag covered casket, borne by a simple wagon, drawn by a team of horses; crowds of mourners; women’s black hats; men’s fedoras; children waving; school flags at half mast; bewilderment, anger, fear, grief.  An English teacher recites Whitman’s then 100 year old eulogy for Abraham Lincoln:

 

O Captain, my captain, our fearful trip is done

The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won

Exult O shores and ring O bells

But I with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies

Fallen cold and dead.

 

3. Scripture

Preliminarily, Jesus first reminds us that we all face judgment, an accounting, a reckoning.  This is not news.  Life itself spells this out for us.  Old age, dusk, autumn, November—we know in our bones about accounting time.  Harvest, report cards, evaluations, income tax—we know in our experience about judgment.  Jesus calmly reminds us that life includes reckoning.  Here he says nothing by the way about individual reckoning, only that accorded to nations.  He tells us that we will be judged as nations, for our own collective, common lives.  Preliminarily, Jesus second connects judgment with relationship not religion, with human relations not religious experience.  In this judgment, heightened religious experience counts not at all.  It is actual living, not religious experience, which is judged.  Service—not music not retreats not fellowship not ecstacy not preaching not prayer not all the things that feed us.  But service, for which the nourishment is meant.  We have in our denomination a January Sunday known as Human Relations Sunday.  But I always wonder, what Sunday is not one such?

 

So, the deutero-pauline admonishment, 2 Thess., to avoid false apocalyptic (that the resurrection has already occurred) and so to honor work, and of the dignity of work.  So, the Isaian hope of sword become plowshares, the iron of violence become the iron of piece.  So, the Psalmist’s hymn of praise. So the Lukan small apocalypse, with its clear as a bell warning to live each day preparing for judgment, to live each day as if it were your last.  So the Lukan condemnation of religion (ie the temple) ‘a place where abuse is masked by piety’ (S Ringe).  Here are signs of finality and judgment:  natural disaster, false speech, warfare, political chaos.  They are in standard apocalyptic form, a recital of history (what the church has endured in the second half of the first century) placed in predictive, forecasted form (what the scholars call vaticinuum ex eventu).  We are not promised the gifts of success or even safety, but only of endurance in faith: ‘by your endurance you will gain your lives’.

 

That is, all times are end times, and every day is the last.  One who loses a parent or sibling knows this.  One who receives calamitous unexpected news knows this.  One who sees a beloved institution ruined by feckless, mendacious, predatory, malfeasant leadership knows this

 

4. Lincoln

We also today are hours from the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, itself a poem shot through with awareness of all manner of endings.  A kind of homecoming, a release from violence, is what Abraham Lincoln proposed in his short masterpiece, 150 years ago, in Gettysburg.

 

What do you recall about November 19, 1863, nearly 150 years ago today.  Words matter more than deeds.  The saving task is to remember the right ones, like these, 272 words, 10 lines, 2 minutes:

 

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

5. Violence

 

Fifty years later I know that many of you can still feel, can taste the trauma of those days, days in which a hard and bitter truth flew  home, “came home to roost”.  The violence in which America was born now haunts the land of the free and the home of the brave.  Violence.  Pioneer violence against native peoples.  Plantation owner violence against owned slaves.  Armed violence in the struggle over the Union.  The violence of class on class and capital on labor.  The lesson of the Kennedy assassination was and is that the violence in which America was born lives on, and will turn its wrath on future generations.  His violent death was a moment of apocalyptic judgment upon a nation with a family history of violence.  Every one of the possible perpetrators of the act itself represent systemic violence.  The violence of Cuban American conflict.  The violence of the cold war.  The violence of the world and underworld.  Our culture is awash in violent rhetoric, violent attitude, violent action.    Once the horror of violence hits home, a new frontier can open before us.   Where sin abounds, grace overabounds.  Once aware of the horror of violence which clearly we are, and once touched by the sting of violence which clearly we are, and once free of the fear of violence, which clearly we are not (truly the thing we have to fear is fear itself and its capacity to take our thanksgiving, our native generosity from us), then we may with renewed vigor look out onto a new frontier.  This is the new frontier of peace.

 

Perhaps the Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel composed most eloquently the hope of that time:

 

Religion’s task is to cultivate disgust for violence and lies, sensitivity to other people’s suffering and the love of peace.

Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears the same.

 

God is greater than religion, and faith is deeper than dogma.

 

When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.

 

God’s voice speaks in many languages, communicating itself in a diversity of intuitions.

Man’s most precious thought is God, but God’s most precious thought is man.

 

6. Border

This same moment faces us as a nation, as a people and as a church.  We have been stung by violence too.  We can respond with further violence.  Or we can begin to ‘go home’ day by day, to suffer the daily shame and dishonor which all violence finally bequeaths, and, in Christ, as Calvin would say ‘in the school of Christ’, learn to practice the things that make for peace.  Living daily with the bruises and damage of yesterday’s rapacity takes the cross of Jesus Christ.  It is the cross, alone, that carries the power for such laborious, long march of mercy.  In the cross we discover a love that casts out fear.  And fear is our greatest, most fearsome obstacle to the new frontier of peace.  When we come toward a new frontier we naturally have fear.

 

Once a day for most of three years, and once a month for another eight, I crossed the border into Canada.  The border questions are those before us in every hour, are they not?  What is your name?  Where are you from?  Where are you headed?Do you have anything to declare.  Eyes and ears await your response in ever room entered, every email received, every meeting attended.  Who are you?  What is your story?  Do you have anything to say?

 

One very cold winter day, in the middle of a clean snowfall, I skidded down north toward Huntingdon Quebec.  It was about 5am, and it was as dark as the dark side of the moon.  I drove slowly to stay on the road.  I was anxious. Then ahead at an intersection I saw a great truck paused and blinking.  In the snow I pulled alongside the cab and looked up at the driver.  He looked fearful.  He squinted and asked “Ou est le frontiere?” (Where is the border).  I summoned what little French I could, put on my bravest accent and began to reply.  But before I had cobbled together two sentences he, listening to my inflection, burst in:  “oh, good lord, you’re an American, I can tell, you speak English!”  Sometimes we have fears at the border of the known and unknown that vanish at the crossing, and entering the new frontier means coming home.

 

7. Peace

 

Jesus empowers us in the way beyond violence.  Elsewhere in Scripture he gives us five very practical commands.

 

Here are five forms of exercise for those preparing for judgment, for those crossing into a new frontier, all of which are measured by their effect on the littlest, most vulnerable, members of the church and the human family.

 

  1. Find a way to sit quietly with those who are imprisoned.  Including those imprisoned by fear, pride, ideology, personality, accident, circumstance.  Go and sit with them and listen.

 

  1. Find a way to heal sickness.  Health is too important to leave to physicians only.  You go and heal.  Assess what habits have brought you health and share them.  Salvation is health.

 

  1. Find a way to cover the naked.  Those who are exposed, open to harm, exposed to scorn and mocking and criticism.  Go and put some clothing on them, some encouragement, some humor, some honor.

 

  1. Find a way to befriend strangers.  Strangers need welcome, friendship.  Until you have been one, maybe you don’t know.  Watch for the stranger and offer hospitality.

 

  1. Find a way to offer food and drink, not to those who have already plenty of both, but those who have parched throats and empty stomachs.  How we would love to take pitchers of faith and loaves of hope and batches of love to all of the people in our county who hunger for them!

 

 

These are the things that make for peace.  These are the signposts on the long road home from violence.  These are the gospeljudgment words.  A church which practices them, and is practiced in their arts, will have much to offer to the healing of a violated culture.

 

8. Kennedy

One summer we visited Hyannisport, and there walked around the Kennedy memorial.  It is a moving experience.  The harbor is laden with beautiful sailboats.  The monument is handsome.  Across the round deck of the memorial there is chiseled a sentence quotation:  “I believe that American should set sail and not lie still in the harbor”.  At his best, Kennedy appealed to our honor not to our security:  “not a set of promises but a set of challenges”.  It is our honor and our willingness to sacrifice which will mitigate violence:  “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”.  It is our stamina which will take us to the new frontier of peace:  “to bear the long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulatiion”.

 

Much of what Kennedy planned has been achieved.  Communism is dead.  Nuclear weaponry is largely under control.  Relations between Protestants and Catholics are good.  Basic civil rights have largely been achieved.  Latin America is open to us.  A man has landed on the moon.

 

But violence, ah violence, violence remains.  Gun violence, ah gun violence, gun violence remains.  The scourge of our generation.

 

So let us set sail for a new frontier, and practice the things that make for peace.  Let us sing the song of peace, with Isaiah and David and 2 Paul and Jesus.  Let us sing the hymn of peace, with Lincoln and Whitman and Heschel and Kennedy. And let us be willing to “pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe” to face down the fear that violence brings, and to cross into a new frontier.  A new frontier of peace…

 

It is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave.  It is wisdom to the mighty, honor to the brave.  The world shall be His footstool and the soul of wrong His slave.  Our God is marching on…

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

 

Faith. Healing. II

Sunday, November 10th, 2013

James 5:14-16; Psalm 145: 1-5, 17-21; Luke 5:17-26

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

 

We are coming to the end of the year, the end of the secular year on December 31st, and the end of the Christian liturgical year on November 30.  However we mark it, this year has been a year of great challenge.  Many of us still have thorns in our flesh: still, none of us are getting any younger; our personal challenges may still be with us or may even have increased.  This year it is not just the personal pain we may feel in the challenges to our health, wealth, work, or personal relationships; this year has brought great pain for others and for the world as well, griefs so large, so complex we can hardly name them, or bear to acknowledge them, or recognize the effects they have on us.  Here in Boston, the Marathon bombings and their shock in an historic event on a lovely day, the lockdown of a major American metropolitan area, the deaths that included two of Boston University’s own and folks that lived in our community’s neighborhoods.  All this against a continuing backdrop:  the so-called “natural” disasters, most recently the typhoon in the Philippines with its incredible strength and destruction; the accelerating threat of extinction of species including our own, some species also valued by humans but all precious in God’s creation; the complexities and complicities of our lives, often without our knowledge or consent, in human-trafficking and modern-day slavery, and in the career to endless war; the continued attempts to exclude LGBTQ people from full inclusion in religious and civic life.  Insert your own particulars here.

There have been many calls for the need for healing over the last year; there have been fewer proposals as to how that healing might come about.  And while there were indeed many poignant moments during the Red Sox Rolling Rally, we cannot always count on a series win for

healing, either individual or communal. … Go Celtics!

When I told folks that I would be preaching on this Gospel text from Luke, a number of them said to me, “Oh, that’s one of my favorites!”   This is in part due to the creative enterprise of the men, who knock apart someone’s roof to let the paralyzed man down to the floor, all the while shedding debris on him, the crowd, and Jesus.  And the rest is due to the fact that this is a Gospel healing story, with some unique features that are indeed good news in a quest for healing.

For one, Jesus’ reaction is notable:  “When he saw their faith”, he speaks to the paralytic, with words of forgiveness and healing.  Many of Jesus’ healings took place, not at the request of those who were sick themselves, but of others who brought their sick to Jesus to be healed.  Here Jesus acknowledges it is not just the faith of the paralytic,  if we can even assume here that he has faith, but it is also the faith, the expectancy and trust of the bearers themselves, so great that they break through a roof, that helps to bring about the healing.

Also, Jesus does not immediately heal the paralytic physically.  Instead, the first thing he says to the paralytic is, “Your sins are forgiven.”  And then he apparently doesn’t say anything, as if that were enough, as if that were the healing that needed to happen, not the healing of the man’s paralysis.  Sin apparently has to do with lack of well-being.  Now we want to be careful here.  Jesus never associates illness or physical condition with God’s punishment, and he does not always give forgiveness of sins to a sick person.  And, as here, he does also often says to a person that their sins are forgiven as a preliminary to healing.  Now some of my friends call me a semanticist, one who is concerned for the meaning of words generally and in context.  It’s a title I’m proud to carry, as I think that there is not nearly enough definition of terms in the life of faith.  Particularly as we consider the word “sin”.  It’s so often limited by fear and ignorance to who and how we love, or to anything remotely related to a good time especially when it is had by “other” people.  So in line with the definition of many scholars and fellow clergy, for the purposes of this sermon “sin” is anything that separates us:  from God, from our “own-most” selves, and from our neighbor, neighbor broadly defined as the person sitting next to us wherever we are this morning all the way to the whole of creation.  Looked at in this way, sin, our own sins and sins of others, does have a direct bearing on our health of every kind:  physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and relational.  Our own Chapel Associate Jennifer Quigley has spoken eloquently from this pulpit about the choices we make to find ourselves or to lose ourselves.   And if we lose our selves how can we be whole?  Likewise our own Chapel Associate Jessica Chicka has spoken eloquently from this pulpit about the dangers of fracking. And if we ignore or allow the poisoning of our land and our water and our air, how can we be whole?  The Psalmist in Psalm 32 acknowledges that his unconfessed sin wastes away his body, and only with confession and forgiveness comes relief.  Sometimes confession of sin is the first step to being whole, to name what is not well with us and be able to let it go, so that we can begin to ask how we might mend.

Next, the scribes and the Pharisees are horrified by Jesus’ forgiveness:  “Who can forgive sins but God alone!”  We remember that the Pharisees are influential layfolk who are very concerned about the strict observance of both the written religious law and its interpretation in oral tradition.  We remember that the scribes are specialists in the study of the religious law – elsewhere Luke calls them “lawyers”.  They have come from all over the country to see and listen to Jesus, and now with this outrageous statement these important people accuse him of blasphemy.  And then Jesus asks a question:  “Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you’, or to say “Stand up and walk”?  And then he heals the paralytic, as a sign, that he has the authority to forgive sins.

When we think of healing, we often think of “cure”, and we often limit our thinking to physical cure, of an illness or a condition.  But in the Greek, to heal  can also mean to save, and/or to make whole.  In English as well, our words for health, salvation, and wholeness come from the same root.  The word “wholeness” in particular derives from the word “holism”, which does not mean a compartmentalized or disassociated view of human life and nature, but means the organic or functional relationship between parts of a whole.  Jesus’ healings of the physical witness to God’s intention to restore wholeness to all people and to all creation.  They testify to the spiritual power of God on which the kin-dom is built and on which we can build our lives.  But even in these testimonies physical healing is only one part of what is going on, and — dare we say it in a culture obsessed with physical perfection – it is not necessarily the most important part.  If it comes, well and good and glorify God.  And, just as notably sins are forgiven, Jesus’ authority in the Spirit is established, the man is restored to God and to his family and friends rejoicing, and everyone, even the formerly horrified scribes and Pharisees, glorify God.

Here we are reminded also of Matthew, also known as Levi, a tax collector under the Empire’s  occupation and so considered a traitor, who had no physical condition but was recognized for who he could be by Jesus,  and then accepted the call to become a disciple.  We are reminded too of the woman with the alabaster jar, who had no physical condition but had her sins forgiven and her grief comforted and was recognized by Jesus for her great love.  Healing encompasses the whole person:  body, mind, emotions, spirit, and relationships.  Which indeed is easier:  to say, “Your sins are forgiven.”, or to say, “Stand up and walk.”?  Which indeed is the greater miracle: to be restored to physical health, or to be able to kick a habit or addiction, or forgive a relative or friend, or transform a conflict, or be in right relationship with God, ourselves, our neighbor on land and in water and in air?  Jesus offers not just a cure, the cessation of symptoms or condition, but the opportunity to be whole, to be truly healed in any and all aspects of our lives.

Jesus entrusted his disciples with this ministry as well.  In both Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts, both from the same author, Jesus’ disciples are seen to have the same power to heal as he did, and the early church assumed that healing was part of their community life.  A specific practice has come down to us in our text from James: the one who is ill, who is not whole, should call for the elders, the leaders in the church, and have them pray in faith, in expectancy and trust.  Those prayers of faith will raise up the one who is not whole, and again, sins will be forgiven.  Church members are to confess their sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that all may be made whole persons in right relationship.  Like the men in the story who brought the paralyzed man to Jesus, so we bring one another to the healing power of God.  John Wesley, the founder of my own faith tradition of Methodism, referred to our being “stewards of grace” to one another in such practices, practices that he called “means of grace”, those practices in which we remind each other of the power of God at work in our lives through the power of the Spirit in the name of Jesus, so that we are able to be continually moving toward a state of wholeness, of right relationship.

It is true.  We do need healing, after this year certainly, but also at many points in our lives; perhaps, given the times in which we live, at all times.  The church has formalized this practice so that both “elders” or “leaders” and those who request prayer for healing are stewards of grace for one another.

That is why, in the new church year, we will experiment, to restore this practice outlined in James here at Marsh Chapel.  On the first Communion Sunday of each liturgical season, we will offer two healing stations during the Communion, one each just under these first windows, so that after partaking of Communion, any of us who feel so moved may come, say what concern we have for our own healing, be joined in the concern in a brief prayer, only after giving permission receive a gentle laying on of hands on or just above the shoulder, only after giving permission be anointed with oil on the forehead, and be blessed.  In this way, we too will be stewards of grace for one another.

We are offering this practice with Communion, as Communion is our clearest affirmation of the presence of God in our midst.  It is where the confession and forgiveness of sins that we are offered every week are underscored by God’s nourishment of us in bread and wine, underscored by God’s empowerment of us by the outpouring of the Spirit.  It is where the congregational recognition of our common life encourages us to bring our individual needs to God with faith, with expectancy and trust that God’s will is for our good in all aspects of our lives.

This is an experiment, in the sense that our initial practice will be time-limited to the first Communion service of each new liturgical season, for this next church year.  Don’t worry about keeping track of the dates – we’ll keep you posted and the first time will be the first Sunday of the new church year, Advent I on December 1.  There will also be ways to evaluate our practice:  there will probably be surveys – short surveys — but also as we welcome your emailed and written responses and your conversational observations.  This practice is also offered with the clear understanding and thanksgiving that there are many ways of healing given to us by God:  the fields of medical, surgical, mental, emotional, and relational  health, the arts, the work of justice, the work of peace.  This spiritual practice is intended to work with these other gifts, to promote the whole health of the whole person.

To pray for healing is not us trying to change God’s mind.  It is to put ourselves in a place of cooperation with God so that the Spirit can work in us toward the wholeness in all aspects of our lives that God intends.  We invite your prayers for this ministry, in trust and expectation, and, dearly beloved, the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.  Glory to God.  Amen.

~Rev. Victoria Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

Saints of God

Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

Luke 6 and Ephesians 1

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Click here to hear the sermon only.

Religious Saint in China

Saints of God are all around us.  You are they.  You.   In Chicago last week I saw one, a dear old friend, former Minister of First UMC Evanston, former Acadmic Dean at Claremont.  I later that week came across a sermon of his.

Emory Purcell wrote, “When I was a child, there were often missionaries or evangelists staying with us. One I remember most fondly was Mary Schlosser. About fifty years of age then, she had been a missionary in China for many years.

All of us have heard stories of how missionaries forced native people to give up their culture and become westerners; how missionaries were tools of capitalistic colonialism. Some were indeed. But not Mary Schlosser. All she talked about were, not her converts, but the boys and girls in her school in China: how bright and eager and loving they were. She had high hopes for each of them and had arranged for some of them to go abroad to prestigious universities to study. She knew that one day they were going to make significant contributions to their people.

Now, you never read about Mary Schlosser in Time. As a young woman she had had a promising career ahead of her. The call to China persuaded her to pour out her life there. After I knew her, Mary Schlosser spent many years in a communist prison camp in China and died shortly after her release.

I did read about Mary Schlosser a few years ago. A group of dissident students from China had been interviewed by a religious news editor. They talked about the missionaries who had taught their parents at a school in Kaifung. Among the names remembered were Clara Leffingwell and Mary Schlosser.

I have a sense that Mary Schlosser’s resurrected life is only beginning. It is love, finally, that surpasses money and power; and overcomes tragedy. Mary Schlosser poured out her life in love for her boys and girls. Through her love, broken as it was, God’s love poured through more and more to life down through the generations.

The thing I remember about Mary Schlosser is her radiance. Was she happy? I don’t know. It is, in fact, an irrelevant question. Mary was radiant. In her enthusiasm and in the greatness of her soul, the sun shown on us. This is our hope.

Rudyard Kipling was once addressing students at McGill University in Montreal. The lure of having things and even the power of success all sound so good if you listen quick. Yet, powerful successful egotism is the ultimate failure. Kipling said:

“Someday, you will meet a person who cares for none of these things. Then you will know how poor you are.”

Over the years I have been privileged to know many people who are rich the way Mary Schosser was rich. Sunday school and public school teachers – parents and young people – bosses and workers. People who have poured out their lives in love so that God’s love can bring life.

I want to suggest that is what has actually made (America) great: not all the things we have to be happy; but, rather, the generous people who pick up the cross of human need-people whose radiant lives testify to life beyond the cross.”

Epistle and Gospel

Friends, beloved of Marsh Chapel and the airwaves:  The saints of God have been well acquainted with impediments to the language of love.  The saints of God have manifold experience of the resistance in experience to the reign of love.  The saints of God know, through and through, the multiple discouragements to the path of love.

One is the very question of the capacity of speech to ignite a decision, of any kind, for a new alternative, of any sort.   Every day, every week brings a new wave of words not fitly spoken, of deeds not fruitfully done, of sentiments not charitably rendered.   Is preaching an anachronism?  Or teaching?  Or earnest discourse of any kind?  Doubt about language itself is itself an impediment to learning the language of love.

Another is the relatively modest response, by cultural comparisons at any rate, to the lived forms of love, imperfectly represented in families, in churches, in movements and missions.   There is a kind of discouraging but inevitable comparison, truth to tell, that lurks behind the mammoth celebration of a World Series victory.  We know what it feels like to celebrate, and to celebrate a clear victory.  It feels great.  But the victories which make us feel great, are not so great themselves.   We have a way of cheering a run, a home run, a grand slam.   But we are not as fully aligned with, or inclined toward, the generations-long struggles that might bring a truly wonderful victory over—you name it.  What we do celebrate somehow eclipses what we could celebrate.

Nevertheless.  I believe in the power of love, and in the language of love, and in the power of the language of love.  I believe you do too.  You are saints of God.  Love is the way forward, and in the end is the only way forward.  Love is the way the world gets better, and in the end is the only measure of the world getting better.  Love is the transfiguration of imagination, the integration of variation, the modification of attenuation, the multiplication of aspiration.  Love never ends.  Love is God.  The Bible records these sentences, in 1 Corinthians and in 1 John.  Love never ends.  Love is God.

Our choir sang love like angels on Monday in NYC.  They entered the city, put on the city as a robe, as a new suit of clothes, offered with grace the musical grace of God, paused for applause, and disrobed, returning the clothing of the city on departure.   Into noise they brought music.  Into cacophony they brought symphony.  Into streets lined with garbage they brought order, charity, magnanimity, generosity.  Into the lingering horror of 9/11, whose victims were treated in George Washington’s pew before which they sang, they brought the beauty of holiness, the grace and goodness and love of lovely good and gracious music—Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus.   I felt:  you young people are too good for this world, or at least for parts of it.  Love lifted us, that afternoon.  Love, sung out by saints of God.

The student of Paul who probably wrote Ephesians cuts into our souls with a gleaming phrase.  ‘With the eyes of your heart enlightened’.  He has about him a church that has lived now for some decades beyond Jesus of Nazareth.  So, three reflections on inheritance.  So, the seal of the Spirit.  So (rightly rendered) your faith in\toward all the saints, or your faithfulness in\toward them, and the inheritance bequeathed by them.  So, the name that is above every name.  So, the church, the body of Christ. ‘With the eyes of your heart enlightened’.  Saints of God have such eyes.

Especially here our teacher offers us something beautifully saving in this epistle.  There is a spatial dimension to salvation.  One is caught up by a certain community, along the lines of a certain map, in the embrace of a certain spiritual geography.  You will feel it, perhaps coming down the sawdust trail of the aisle in Marsh Chapel, for communion.  You are not alone.  The saints of God are with you, around you. ‘With the eyes of your heart enlightened’.

Boston is taking stock this week, taking stock of a year of mayhem and marvel both.  It is too soon, well too soon, for us yet to absorb the sounds and sights of 2013.  For this we shall need not only the eyes of the heart, but the ears of the heart as well.  To hear the explosions as they did ricochet down Boylston Street.  To hear the sirens racing at night down Commonwealth.  But also to hear the cracks of bats that sent balls and outfielders tumbling into the outfields and into the bull pen and into the stands.  And to hear the surge of joy, the shared happiness, lifted in a choral shout at the long end of many games.  Boston is taking stock, this week, taking stock of this year gone by, wherein again we have been taught by experience to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep.

Jesus in St Luke utters both blessing and woe.  There is a leveling coming in God’s time.  The last shall be first, the first last.  From worst to first.  In God’s time which we cannot understand.  We have only the yearning of the heart, the eyes of the heart, and the examples of the saints to go by.  But lifelong loss of limb, horrific harm to innocent women and men, calls up for us a longing for resurrection, a yearning, visible in the eyes of the heart, for restoration.  In God’s time we look forward to what we can never see in our time.  In our bones we know that the leveling of justice is the path to love.  Valleys exalted, hills made low.  The Republican Governor of Ohio this week expressed the same sentiment.  The poor have suffered enough.  Wealth carries responsibility with it.  All should be fed at the Lord’s table.  Laugh and celebrate, but a leveling is coming, in God’s time.   Above earth’s lamentations, there is divine restoration, if only to start in the eyes of the heart.  Saints of God see with enlightened eyes, eyes of the heart.

Secular Saint in Syracuse

Some of you know I was home in Syracuse a few weeks ago.  Theirs is an historically Methodist though now largely secular college, like ours.   But all the secularity, all the un-religion, all the modernity in the world, in the end, does not occlude the enlightenment of the eyes of the heart.  Love lives.  The saints of God, religious and unreligious, observant and secular, theist and a-theist, churchly and cultural, share these eyes, a seeing with the heart (wouldn’t that make a good book title?).  You should read the commencement address, by George Saunders, given at Syracuse University last spring.  Here is its marrow:

One useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?”

Here’s something I do regret:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class.  In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.”  ELLEN was small, shy.  She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore.  When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing).  I could see this hurt her.  I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear.  After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth.  At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.”  And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then – they moved.  That was it.  No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that?  Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it?  Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her.  I never said an unkind word to her.  In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still.  It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.  (But not kindly).

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.  Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.  That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been.  Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s.  Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place.  Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

Someday I hope to meet Mr. George Saunders, one of the saints of God.  Until then, I will take up his cause, and ask you to do so too.  Robert Cummings Neville wrote (2001):  “Christianity first and foremost is about being kind.” (Symbols of Jesus, xviii).  Are you walking in the light?  Are you loving your neighbor?  As you would have others do for you, do you do so for them?  Are you seeing with the eyes of the heart?

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