Archive for April, 2014

The Bach Experience

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

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Dean Hill:

Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God”

 

                  We tend to want rather instant results.  Rapid feedback, metrically based, positive and solid—these are the sorts of outcomes we prize.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we do and desire so.

 

But in a larger sense?

 

Ministry in particular and life in general require a long view.   The planting of seeds.  The lighting of candles.  The casting of empty nets.  The waiting, and waiting and waiting.  It is a long wait to live by faith, hoping against hope, and trusting the invisible to vanquish the visible.  Easter is the announcement of the victory of the invisible.

 

Thomas, poor Thomas, remembered for his very human desire for the visible, the tangible, the metrically based, positive and solid, verifiable knowing—picks up the monicker, Doubting Thomas.

 

Thomas.  Logos.  Nicodemus.  Samaritan Woman.  Lazarus.  Paraclete.  BELOVED DISCIPLE.  Thomas.  Where did all these figures come from?  Not one every seen or heard in the rest of the New Testament, particularly not in the other gospels.  Whence?

 

The strange world of the Bible is at its strangest in the Fourth Gospel.

 

But Thomas is not just the doubter.  Thomas, alone, Thomas, more than any other, Thomas, of the silk road, Thomas of the so named Gospel, Thomas of our reading today, Thomas alone perfectly summarizes the whole of John, saying of the crucified and risen One:  ‘My Lord, and My God’.  Thomas is not just the doubter.  Thomas is the true believer, too.  The Son of Man is both Earthly Lord and Heavenly God.

So we have some reason to wait, some basis for the long view, some heartfelt humility as we move forward through the ages.

 

To live in faith is to build schools in which you will not study, though your grandchildren might.  To live in faith is to start churches in which you will not pray, though your grandchildren might.  To live in faith is to plant trees under which you will never take a siesta, though your grandchildren might.

 

Herman Melville worked in a government office most of his life, having written the greatest of novels, Moby Dick, whose popular appreciation came well after Melville’s death.

 

Ludwig von Beethoven composed his Ninth Symphony, without the capacity to hear it, to hear its beauty, its power, its wonder.

 

Daniel Marsh moved this University out to the banks of the Charles river, and constructed buildings, including this very Chapel, later named for him,  but did not live long enough, though he lived a very long life, to see just how much Boston University would change and grow.

 

Alistair Macleod, eulogized this week as an author, ‘not in a hurry’, who left behind one novel and one ample collection of stories, all set in Cape Breton, will never fully know how meaningful his beautiful prose has been to so many of us.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his magnum opus, gathering together over time material older and newer, and giving us one the greatest artistic, musical works of all time, perhaps the very greatest, a portion of which we shall hear together in a moment.  Bach never heard the B Minor Mass in lifetime.  Bach never lived to hear the greatest of his works performed.

 

Dr. Jarrett, what Bach did not hear, we shall.  At the conclusion of this year’s tour de force, this year’s celebration of Bach, here and there, in NYC and in Boston, and by radio and internet the world over, what are we about to hear?

 

Dr. Jarrett:

We come this morning to the fulfillment of a year-long survey and study of Bach’s greatest work – the Mass in B Minor. Many would even argue the B Minor Mass is humanity’s greatest work! In this final section of the B Minor Mass, we hear Bach’s Sanctus, Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and the famous Dona Nobis Pacem. We hear some of Bach’s earliest music, the Sanctus written his first year in Leipzig in 1723, more than 20 years before it found final resting place in the B Minor Mass. Mirroring Isaiah’s six-winged Seraphim, Bach scores for 6voices, the only such instance in his entire output of vocal writing.  Caste as a grand and bold exultation at the throne of the Almighty, we have truly entered a musical Holy of Holies. The Osanna that follows surpasses the Sanctus in texture, expanding six voices to eight in double chorus, exclaiming their Creator’s Praise in joyful dancelike shouts of Osanna. From the largest complement of voices, Bach next scores for his most intimate in the entirety of the Mass with the Benedictus. Only three members of the orchestra accompany the lone tenor voice. The delicacy of the flute line and the tenderly sung tenor, bring us to the humility of the Savior, entering Jerusalem on the donkey, the meek and mild manger, and ultimate humility of the cross.

The Agnus Dei brings us another intimate moment of austere devotion. We are fixed and transformed by Christ on the tree, the emblem of suffering and shame.

In the fall we knelt together in supplication for the Kyrie, a moment of corporate pardon and affirmation of grace. In December we rejoiced in the nave of Bach’s Mass with that great hymn Gloria in Excelsis Deo. IN February, we affirmed our faith at the crossing of word and table with Bach’s Nicene Crede. Today, Bach invites us to the High Altar, transformed by the Holy of Holies. Emboldened and renewed, we take up the cross, sent forth into the world in an eternal quest for God’s peace – Dona nobis pacem, pacem, dona nobis.

 

Dean Hill:

 

With your help, and that of the choir, and especially that of Bach, we have learned some things.

 

(From Scott Fogelsong): (The mass) offers music lovers a dear and faithful friend.  Like certain other beloved choral works—Handel’s Messiah comes immediately to mind—its grandiose scope never overwhelms the intimate humanity at its core.  Thus we cherish it, not only as a masterpiece, but also as a mirror that shows us the saints that lie within.

 

The entire Mass might be assembled from re-purposed material.  We may never know for sure.

 

Bach never heard a performance of the completed B Minor Mass.  “The greatest work of music of all ages and all peoples” (Nageli).

 

What part of the symphony of your life, or mine, will be played, enjoyed, celebrated only after you are not able to hear it?  What gift of inquiry that causes an inspiration to vocation?  What gift of wealth that endows in perpetuity some form of the good, the true, the beautiful?  What gift of progeny that continues a genetic and biological trajectory in life?  What gift of institutional, institutionalized improvement that makes this world a better place?  What song of yours will others be singing when you are long gone?

 

Marilyn Robinson traces the emergence of her faith, in part, to a long ago Sunday morning:  “One Easter I went with my grandfather to a small Presbyterian church in northern Idaho where I heard a sermon on the discrepancies in the gospel accounts of the resurrection…I was a young child… yet I remember that sermon…I can imagine myself that primal Easter, restive at my grandfather’s elbow, pushing my nickels and dimes of collection money into the tips of my gloves…memorably forbidden to remove my hat…It seems to me I felt God as a presence before I had a name for him…I was aware to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention all around me…and I thought everyone else must also be aware of it…Only in church did I hear experience like mine acknowledged, in all those strange narratives, read and expounded…(227)…Amen (the preacher) said, having blessed my life with a lovely thing to ponder.”

 

          Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God”

 

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

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

Angel Voice

Sunday, April 20th, 2014

Matthew 28:1-7

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Yellow and Blue

 

It has been a long week.  It has been a long old time religion winter.  It has been a long year.

 

On April 15 I jogged in the morning, down along the river.  A cold day.  A sad day.  A mournful day.  A blue day, with the slight budding wind of a yellow dawn in early spring.  By the Hatch Shell someone had beautifully placed a dozen boxes, along the path and along the river.  In each flower box there were dozens of flowers, of only two types and colors.  Daffodils.  Yellow.  Violets.  Blue.  Daffodils and violets, yellow and blue.  In Boston, on Easter, this year of our Lord, 2014, we are right in those flower boxes.  One part violet, on part daffodil, one part yellow, one part blue, on part singing the hymns of Easter, one part howling with the laments of loss.

 

In the last year, we have been a city drenched in sorrow.

Our good words about resilience, rightly spoken, as our honest reaction this year to neighborhood terrorism, do not displace our sorrow.   The best of days, the highest of moments, the most charmingly gracious of cityscapes, the culmination of the American experiment in PatriotsDay-MarathonDay-SpringHoliday-BostonDay—all trashed a year ago by senseless, needless, heedless, injurious, intentional, hateful, killing violence.  When another takes what you hold dear, count precious, think lovely, and rapes it, you cannot avoid anger, and the sorrow at the heart of anger.   Now the angel of hurt has come near, here.  Some of the sensitive in listener land wonder whether anything religiously cast, any preachment, can carry any truth, any good.  We have become closely acquainted again with sin.

Sin is utterly personal.  This we understand.  The covenantal commands of the decalogue have a personal consequence (Exodus 20).  For we confess, too a personal dimension to the apocalyptic sway of sin.  The angels in heaven—and perhaps a few others—may “need no repentance”.  As grace touches ground in Jesus Christ, sin touches sand in personal confessions.  We get lost.  It is our nature, east of eden.  We get lost in sex without love:  lust.  We get lost in consumption without nourishment:  gluttony.  We get lost in accumulation without investment:  avarice.  We get lost in rest without weariness, in happiness without struggle:  sloth.  We get lost in righteousness without restraint:  anger.  We get lost in desire without ration or respect:  envy.  And most regularly, we get lost in integrity without humility:  pride.  If you have never known lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy or pride you are not a sinner, you are outside the cloud of sin, and you need no repentance.  (You also may not be quite human).  But if so, hear good news:  the Easter gospel is for you!

 

Angel Voice

 

Today is Easter.  Sursum Corda!

 

The Lord is Risen!  He is Risen Indeed!

 

Early in the morning, before dawn, two women—Matthew has no place for men at the tomb, except guards so fearful they are like dead—come on a religious errand to the sepulchre.  They approach quietly, on tiptoe, for the air is quiet before the storm.  They listen and watch…

 

And behold!…There is an earthquake and an Angel, a messenger of the Lord who descends from heaven, rolls the stone away—notice this—sits upon the stone.  Like lightening and snow is he—like the lightening of Labor Day and like the snow of March 6 is he.  We know about lightening and even more about snow.  Dazzling white, fearsome power.

 

Why an angel?  Why all the drama?  Why such an appearance?  Why the stone as a stool?  Why the title, angel of the Lord?

 

An angel is a messenger.  The drama means to get your attention.  He sits—to teach.  Remember Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount—“he sat down and taught them”.  In antiquity, a teacher sat to teach.  His sitting is for our instruction.  And he sits—where?  On the stone of death.  There it is, at Easter:  an angel of the Lord, sitting to teach, atop the symbol of death.  Death is a part of life.  In Jesus Christ, death has lost its sting.        Behold I tell you a mystery… Kata staupon…Crux sola…Que es la vida…Le Couer a sais…

 

Let us suspend our disbelief for a few minutes, and listen and learn from the voice of an angel, sent to teach us.  For we trust—that life has meaning, that worship deepens meaning, that Scripture carries meaning, and that preaching applies meaning to our very hearts for our eternal health and wellbeing.

 

The Angel says, “Fear Not….”

 

I am a Christian because I see in Jesus Christ that God has tasted all that I will ever taste—all the way to death.  Am I weary?  So was he.  Am I alone? So was he.  Am I downcast?  So was he.  Am I betrayed?  So was he.  Am I rejected?  So was he.  Am I to die?  So did he.  Where I go, he has been.   “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps 34:18).  He has become like us, that we might become like him.  As Paul says, “he was put to death for our trespasses, and raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25)

 

Be not afraid! In the hour post-mortem, we learn:  Fear not.

 

Fear not:

 

You may be fixing breakfast, either a theist in doubt or an a-theist doubting your doubt.

 

You may have given first aid and first response last Marathon Monday, and now are in worship finding a way toward peace.

 

You may have sat in your car, last Tuesday at 2:49pm, silent, weeping, and carefully mentioning by name:  Lu Lingzi, Martin Richards, Krystle Campbell, and Sean Collier.

 

You may have realized, as a young adult, as young adults do, walking the Esplanade yesterday, that you are not as self-aware, self-critical, self-disciplined as you should be, by now.

 

You may be new to your job, a responsible one at that, involving the safety of many others, rising to meet the day, and praying for an incident free tomorrow.

 

You may be a preacher giving his 35th Easter sermon, wondering what the judgment of them all will be.

 

You may be remembering a loved one who has died, and grieving that loss still, as the music subsides.

You may have been healed this winter, a long time healing in a long cold winter, warmed by the sunshine of Easter weekend.

 

You may be in the choir, glad for the beauty and conviviality and community of church and worship, but also convinced that none of it will last if based on shaky philosophical foundations, and you are right to be so convinced.

 

You may be in the balcony, ready to hear, by inspiration and grace, a saving word, a healing word, an intervening word, an angel voice.

 

You may remember that you have been radically accepted, as Paul Tillich would say, that you have this acceptance by the work of Christ, as Karl Barth would say, and that you have this through no good work at all of your own, as John Calvin would say.  So share your faith!, John Wesley would say.

 

The Angel says,  “He is not Here…”

 

Jesus’ absence is at the heart of Easter.  The Gospel helps us see his absence, then and now.

 

Very few people are ever argued into faith, or out of faith.  Persuasion does the former, sometimes.  Tragedy does the latter, sometimes.

 

All of the Matthean touches are metaphorical:  the wild earthquake, the stone miraculously moved, the guards made soporific, the clothing as bright as sunshine, the shining as white snow (the snow part is the part we get easily).

 

So too is the Angel Voice.

 

You and I do not hear such voices, normally at least.

 

In 1977 I sat as a seminarian with an elderly Presbyterian minister and a young first year student.  The student said:  “God spoke to me and said…God’s voice rang in my ears…God shouted at me…God whispered to me…The minister, aged and bespectacled and white haired and hard of hearing, said:  “I have been in ministry for 50 years.  God has never, no not once, not ever spoken to me.”  Well, after 35 years, I am with him.  God has not ever spoken to me.  Angel Voice is a figure of speaking, metaphorical not literal.  For Matthew.  For that Presbyterian minister.  For me.  For you.  For you all.  It is a sign, a symbol, a metaphor.  BUT IT HAS POWERFUL MEANING NONETHELESS.

 

Angel voice reverberates, resounds, rolls, undulates, crashes, sings, calls, shouts—‘He is not here’.

 

Like the ocean rolling at night, ebb and flow, tide and surf, wave and beach, the ocean rolling at night, a natural Angel Voice.  We sense behind the phenomena, the numinous.  Howard Thurman:  ‘the ocean and the night…’ Angel voice beckons you from the shoreline of the world, roaring with the wild beauty of the untamed universe.

 

Like the still, small voice of your conscience.  You have in your heart, in your mind, in your soul, in your self a kind of inner voice, which in its own way rolls in and out like a wave on the ocean.  Or, it is like the ‘ping’ in a message box, echoing, lost, ringing from the bottom of the Indian Ocean.  Angel voice.  ‘Not sure you really want to do that…’  ‘Not sure you really should have said that…’  Not  sure you really do think that…’  You could help her… You could encourage him…You could think about that another way.  Angel voice beckons you from that inner voice, the singing solo of your own-most self.

 

Like the heart felt longing, feeling, careening, caring of love.   You can feel the love of those who lost limbs or senses or loved ones last year.  You really reach out in love to them, and to others in hurt, tragedy, need.  The Bible says:  no one has ever seen God.  The Bible says:  if we love one another, God’s love abides in us.  The Bible says:  God is Love.  The Bible says:  Love is God.

 

At age 8 or so, from our little village in farm country, I had never traveled to a MLB game.   But once a summer in Cooperstown the two worst MLB teams played an exhibition.  I do not remember the second team.  But you know, in the early 60’s, who the first team was:  the Mets.  My dad and his clergy friend Bruce took me.  Bruce was the first Boston voice I remember:  a BU graduate, a Sox fan, pork and beans and Saturday evening, he did not drop his r’s.  Those two Methodist preachers had very little spare money or time, but they found a way to give a happy day to a boy who would not leave early, even though the Mets were down by at least 20 runs (J).  On the way home, in the evening, though I had been warned not to do so, I lifted my new cap out the window into the breeze:  off it went, in the wind, across the road, down the embankment, and into the Cherry Valley Creek (where in 1910 my grandmother had been baptized.)  “It’s not fa’ down.  Yo fatha and I can get it.”  Every loving word, deed, act, prayer, every one has a lasting influence, lasting fifty years and more.  Is it any wonder, so raised, but such, that I went into their ministry, served churches along the Cherry Valley, preached as a Methodist itinerant, and ended up, where they started out, here in Boston?

 

‘He is not here’.  Angel voice in creation and in conscience and in compassion tells us so.

 

 

 The Angel says, “He Has Risen”

Easter is a mystery, a resurrection mystery.  The old creed can display its meaning for what we believe.

 

In God, Maker of heaven and earth.  God creates the world, known to us in all its brute fallenness, its sin and death and threat of meaninglessness.  This is the all the creed says about the world, life, creation.  Here it is, all things visible—earth—and invisible—heaven, created from nothing by God.

In the Son of God, Jesus, in life

 

Conceived in the joyful explosive passionate spirited love of all conception

 

Born as in all birth of a woman whose self giving in delivery is utterly virginal

 

Suffering as all do under structured oppression, from Pilate to Putin and beyond

 

Crucified, dead buried, shuffling off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns

 

Raised from the dead, sitting on the right hand of God to judge the living and dead, all visible and invisible, a sound, solid but utterly incomprehensible mystery by which death is swallowed up in victory.

 

In the very Spirit of God

 

Which we taste in the global church

 

Which we enjoy in the fellowship and goodness of friendship

 

Which we hold for dear life, like those capsized at sea, in the saving life preserver of forgiveness

 

Which we trust for the renewal of the church, the body so resurrected daily

 

Which we leap into at last, at death, trusting that life everlasting is the last word.

 

We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed, always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.

 

Salvation is about space, about openness!  “In my father’s house there are many rooms..”  “The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting…” “As far as the east is from the west, so far does God remove our transgression…” We used to sing:  “Give me land, lots of land, ‘neath the starry skies above—don’t fence me in!  Salvation is about space.

 

Jesus goes to Galilee—the place of difference, of the unreligious.  Go quickly and tell his disciples…

 

Coda!

 

The angel voice speaks to you:

 

Whether you are 80 or 50 or 20

 

Whether your mode is sincerity or authenticity or irony

 

Whether your favorite film is Casablanca or Easy Rider or Ferris Buehler

 

Whether the day that lives in infamy is December 7 or November 22 or September 11

 

Whether bridge means River Quai or Chappaquidick or Nowhere

 

Whether your trumpeter is Armstrong or Jarrett or Marsalis

 

Whether that poster is of Marilyn Monroe or Raquel Welch or Madonna

 

Whether you fought anti Semitism or racism or homophobia

 

Whether your best baseball card is of Ted Williams or Karl Yastremski or Big Papi

Whether your medium is radio or television or the internent

 

Whether you read Ernest Hemingway or Lionel Trilling or David Foster Wallace

 

Whether you shout Airborne! or Right On! or Whatever!

 

Whether your default mode is sincerity or authenticity or irony

 

Whether you are 80 or 50 or 20

 

 

Angel voice speaks still…

 

Dag Hammarskjold:  ‘God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal Deity, but we die on the day our lives cease to be illumined by a radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder whose source lies beyond all reason.’

 

My friend is a member or the American College of Cardiology.  They have instituted a new conclusion to all of their continuing education units, which he, rightly, thinks should also conclude every worship service.  In short, the doctors are asked before they leave:  “How will what you have learned at this conference change the way your practice?  What will you do differently than you did before?

 

He adds:  I long to hear this coda, or something like it, in every sermon, every Sunday:  ‘Friends and fellow disciples of the living Christ, what will you now do differently as a result of your participation here this morning?  What deeds of the body will you begin today to put to death by the Spirit, and what fruits of the Spirit will you now cultivate, harvest and distribute?  What life giving, life sustaining, life affirming practices and habits will you today begin to establish.  Make them specific, personal, demanding, actionable, measurable.  What will be your actions and metrics? Please join us! (Dr. Larry Gage, Rochester, NY).

 

 

Through it all rings the Resurrection Hope, and an angel voice:

Fear not

He is not here

He has risen

 

 

Whether you are enchanted by sincerity, or enchanted by authenticity or enchanted by irony—whether you are 80 or 50 or 20—Angel Voice speaks for and to you.

 

Big steps are better than small steps.  Small steps are better than no steps.  No steps are better than backward steps.

 

‘Screw your courage to the sticking place, and we will not fail.’ (Macbeth)

 

‘And go to church on Sunday.’ (Billy Graham).

 

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

Embracing Fear and Great Joy

Saturday, April 19th, 2014

Each year Dean Hill focuses the Lenten preparation for Easter by considering the special insights brought by some important Christian author.  This year it has been John Calvin.  Several weeks ago I had the special privilege of preaching the Sunday morning service at Marsh and drew attention to Calvin’s claxon insistence on the transcendent glory and beauty of God.  Although Calvin began his Institutes with the claim that any consideration of God immediately reflects on the wretched human condition, and any consideration of the human condition directs the light back to the unmeasurable perfection of God, for him the real point of religion is God, not the human condition.  Martin Luther, the other great Reformer of Western Christianity, said in effect that it’s all about human beings, their salvation, and how God brings about that salvation.  For Calvin, religion is all about God who, incidentally, brings about salvation. People concerned for their own salvation and the renovation of the world in justice find Calvin austere. They take little comfort in his claim that from God’s point of view the whole creation is beautiful and that God’s justice is glorified as much in the punishment of the damned as in the heavenly welcome of the saved.  Calvin is rarely associated with feel-good religion.  But Calvin was indeed concerned with the human condition and in fact wrote far more about how we ought to behave within the divine economy than he did about God per se.  So I feel obliged tonight to preach the Word through Calvin’s warm and fuzzy side.  Only a Methodist would attempt such a thing.  And if you are thinking that this means a very short sermon, think again.

The Easter Vigil is an appropriate occasion to seek God through Calvin’s understanding of the human condition.  It is a time between the crucifixion, which symbolizes the worst in the human condition at its most depraved, and the Easter resurrection, which symbolizes the best that can happen.  Officially after sundown on Saturday we are in Easter day as the Jews reckon the beginning of days, and we all know about the discovery of the empty tomb and the encounters with the Risen Christ that are coming in the morning’s symbolism of our liturgical year.  But this service is still a vigil, a waiting for what has not yet arrived, albeit promised.  The side of Calvin that is so genuinely empathic with the human condition, the side that has drawn people to him despite his abrasive austerity, is his recognition that life every day is like the Easter Vigil.  The catastrophic judgment of Good Friday is past and the fulfillment of Easter resurrection is only promised.  This is the condition in which we actually live.  We can pretend that we in fact

live face to face with God dying for our salvation as symbolized by Calvary.  But that is not in our personal experience.  It happened in the past and perhaps it has been misinterpreted.  If we are honest we worry.  We can pretend that we actually live fully resurrected Easter lives, that our souls are purified and that our institutions guarantee justice and flourishing for all.  But of course that is simply mistaken.  Theologians protect their hinder parts by saying that we now live in anticipation of the fulfilled resurrection triggered by God’s saving act in the crucifixion, an “already but not yet” resurrection.  This is called “proleptic consummation,” a great phrase to remember for cocktail parties.

Dean Hill tomorrow, I wager, will talk about signs and manifestations of resurrection.  “Christ is Risen!” we will sing.  But what about us?  How are we risen? Tomorrow we will know deep down that it is still only promises.  Easter morning is still only promises, just like the Easter Vigil tonight, and any honest heart knows this.  Every day is still the Vigil.  When we face up to this with an honest mind, and look carefully to see who we really are and what our world really is, we have cause to worry in this Vigil.  Only preachers who are realistic about the vigil-character of Christian life offer honest comfort.  This is the warm and fuzzy part of Calvin because he is with us in what we know in our hearts to be true.  His honesty is the beginning of true comfort.  Let me call this “deep” warmth and fuzziness.

Calvin’s own theology is quaint, offensive to our usual understanding of Christian kindness, and out of date because his mythic understanding of the world is premodern.  But permit me to sketch the logic of his theory of the human condition.  He began with St. Paul’s claims about law and grace in the fifth chapter of Romans, the chapter just before our Epistle tonight. Paul drew the language of law from the Jewish Torah and Calvin drew it to extremes from his own background as a lawyer.  What they both meant, phrased more generally, is that the created world has moral standards, whether expressed as laws, or better and worse policies, or better and worse choices, or ways of life.  No matter how hard we try, we come short of perfection as measured by those standards.  Calvin was a Renaissance humanist and knew as well as anyone that there are great human accomplishments and that some people are better than others.  But from God’s point of view, according to Calvin, any moral imperfection is a failure to meet the standards and thus is sin: we are depraved.  “Depravity” is a good Calvinist word for the ineluctable tendency to sin.  That we are moral failures was as empirically obvious to Calvin as it is to us. Why we think perversely and behave badly is in part because of bad intentions and choices, but why we make bad choices despite our best will to the contrary is a deeper problem.  Calvin’s mythic understanding blamed it on the original sin of Adam from which we inherit an irresistible tendency to sin.  Our own mythic understanding more likely looks to deep psychic contradictions, incompletely suppressed infantile urges, bad upbringing, neurologically damaged impulse control, economic deprivation, dysfunctional families, and wicked social structures.  From a compassionate human point of view we readily make allowances for our behavior. “Sarah surely is a selfish person, but look where she came from; and she is not half as selfish as her brother.” But for Calvin, the human point of view is not the relevant one.  It’s God’s point of view that counts and part of God’s perfection is perfect justice. If a person fails to meet the moral standard the person deserves to be punished in Calvin’s juridical imagination.  We all fail, and thus we all deserve to be punished.  Because no one is perfectly justified, everyone must be condemned according to God’s justice.  In Calvin’s mythic world, God is anthropomorphized to be a judge as depicted in the great paintings of the Last Judgment and people are mythically conceived to have a natural afterlife that must embody their just reward, Heaven or Hell.  Because everyone is guilty, everyone belongs in Hell, according to Calvin  (and Luther, Aquinas, Augustine, and Paul).

This mythic understanding of God as an anthropomorphic judge, and of human life as naturally immortal with a destiny for Heaven or Hell, has lost its hold on most of us.  I don’t anthropomorphize God at all nor do I think about a natural or supernatural afterlife.  But I do know that in ultimate perspective I and maybe everyone else fail our moral standards and thus are ultimately guilty, however proximately worthy we are.  I don’t need to imagine an anthropomorphic divine judge in order to know what the ultimate judgment ought to be. I don’t need to imagine a Heaven or Hell to know that we are in a broken relationship with God as the ultimate Creator and that this broken relationship is ultimately the most important thing about us.  And I don’t need a belief in an historical Adam causing all his children ultimate grief to know that however much we might improve our relationship with God, we still cannot make it perfect.  What is your mythic understanding of all this?  I suspect most of you have mythic visions somewhere between Calvin’s and mine.  Calvin’s point was that, however you mythologize your broken relation to what is ultimate—a danger of frying forever in Hell or being ultimately estranged, if we take life seriously we are in ultimate trouble.  Most non-Calvinist Christians find ways of saying it is ok not to take life seriously.  Calvin was serious.

Now, the Christian Gospel is that God is not only perfectly just but also merciful.  Although everyone deserves to be damned to eternal punishment, however that is imagined, God sent Jesus Christ his Son to take the punishment for us.  Therefore, although we deserve to be condemned, in fact we are reconciled to God by Jesus Christ.  Notice the strict logic here: God’s justice condemns us all and God does not have to save anyone; but God does save us, at least some of us, and this is pure merciful grace on top of justice.  This is the sense in which Christians from Paul to Luther and Calvin understood the meaning of salvation: by the Law we are condemned but by Grace in the sacrifice of Jesus we are saved.

What happens, for Calvin, when we recognize God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ?  Do we become perfect?  No, not at all.  We do not need to become perfect because God saves the already condemned.  Instead we just need to get better.  Recognizing that we are saved by God in Christ, sin loses its hold on us and we can work at improving our lives.  For Calvin this meant building more loving communities and more loving relationships.  In his time, this was a directly political task and he set up a theocratic state in Geneva.  To determine how to be more loving he set up laws of thought and behavior, and more laws.  The state-church appointed elders as officials to administer pastoral care, which consisted in finding sinners and correcting their behavior. This passion for enforcing love is what seems so terrible to us today, an invasion of privacy, an authoritarian dictatorship, all in the name of helping the graciously saved to improve.

Looking around, Calvin saw a lot of people that simply didn’t seem to be working at becoming more moral and loving.  Some of them rejected the whole idea that they were naturally damned or that Jesus Christ makes them righteous in God’s system of justice.  Many nations never heard of Jesus Christ.  So it seemed to him that only some people are saved by God’s grace, manifests God’s freedom.  That God’s mercy saves some does not mean that God’s mercy has to save all.  There are passages in the Bible that talk about God’s elect and Calvin concluded that God elects some for salvation and leaves the rest to the damnation everyone deserves.  From the human point of view this seems terribly unfair and the great Calvinist Karl Barth said that, although God does not have to elect everyone,  he does.  For Calvin, what counts is God’s point of view and God’s justice is fulfilled as much in the punishment of the non-elect as in the salvation of the elect.  This famous Calvinist conclusion is repugnant to most modern mythic sensibilities and is a good reason to flee from his theological anthropomorphism, which actually is inconsistent with his other emphasis on God’s transcendent beauty and immeasurable perfection.

The consequence for Calvinists of Calvin’s conclusion about selective election is to raise the horrifying question, am I among the elect?  I try hard to do better, but still sin, as Calvin said even the elect would.  But then what is the difference between me as elect and me as a continuing reprobate?  The answer has been to work harder.  Take life seriously and work on being more loving.  Work, work, examine your conscience, work more.  Somehow working to be more loving became associated with working to be richer, but I’ll leave Dean Hill to deal with that.

Suppose we reject Calvin’s mythic world of an anthropomorphic God saving some and damning others to Hell.  Suppose instead we ask whether we are estranged from God and also somehow reconciled.  How can we tell whether we are reconciled?  What are the empirical marks of being reconciled with our ultimate Creator?  Methodists look to experiences of emotional assurance; the theologian Paul Tillich says to look to ecstatic experiences.  But can we be sure?  Need we be sure?

Tonight’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans, that comes after the Law and Grace chapter, says that as Christians we already have died with Christ in our baptism and have risen with him to new spiritual life.  Paul was talking about the Romans as they were then, not about an afterlife, although he also expected some consummatory afterlife.  The quality of being a Christian is to die to the bondage of sin and to rise with all the powers of God that might flow through us like rivers of grace to live well and better in the world.  Forget about whether you are elect and instead live with the bounties of grace that abound around us.  Don’t worry about others who might not be elect.  Point out to them the graces that abound.  Get up and do better, as Calvin said.  Forget about the salvation problem and just live abundantly.  This is the deeper message of Calvin, the deep warmth and fuzziness.

Back at the Easter Vigil, through which we watch every day, what is the gospel of promise?  According to Matthew, the women who discovered the risen Christ were filled with fear and great joy, which is what we should feel tonight and live with always.  The women at the tomb did not know what to expect, and neither do we.  But they had seen the reversal of death in this life and so were filled with great joy.  What did they fear?  Calvin is associated with the fear aspect of faith.  But contrary to what many people think, he did not say that we should fear that we might not be saved.  Rather he said that we should fear that we do not take all this seriously.  It is possible to go through life inattentive to what is ultimate.  It is possible to construe Easter as just good times and no worry.  What Calvin tells us is that we must keep close attention to the ongoing affairs of our lives, ready always to make an advance in love and to build a better community, because this is the way to pay attention to God.  The beauty of God is to be found in the details of life, however horrific and exhausting they might be.  Calvin and many Calvinists used outrageous and even cruel means to call our attention to the duties of this life, including threats of hellfire and brimstone.  But we are beyond that mythic worldview.  Calvin’s point was that concerns for some final salvific fulfillment are misplaced: we cannot know it, or do anything about it, and the concerns only illustrates the folly of living life from the selfish human point of view. Forget about the fulfillment of mythic promises because they only tempt our self-centeredness. Live rather in the Easter Vigil mode, baptized in Jesus’s death to whatever would hold us back and raised in Jesus’s new life to live filled with God in our attention to the everyday.  Life in the Vigil mode fears inattention to the seriousness of the fact that God is in everything we do and enjoy.  Life in the Vigil mode is also filled with great joy, celebrating not our victory but the fact that God is to be enjoyed in every detail.  The warm and fuzzy Calvin comforts us only when we crucify both the quest for salvation and the hope for victory in worldly terms, and discover the depths of our daily lives that are adazzle with the gratuitous and astonishing glory of God.  The Easter Vigil lets us know that life is charged with God in its details, in its responsibilities and simple pleasures. In the worst of sufferings, in the most humiliating failures, in the shortness and long-term vanities of life, what counts is the ever-present beauty of our Creator, which is the only warm and fuzzy comfort worth preaching.

Amen.

~Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

The Liturgy of the Palms and the Passion

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Click here to hear the full service.

Matthew 21:1-11

Matthew 26:14-27:66

 

A Meditation on the Palms

Seeing With the Heart: Meditations from Marsh Chapel, 2010

 

The Dean:   If we believe that life has meaning and purpose

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that the Giver of Life loves us

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that divine love lasts

People:   And we doThe Dean: If we believe that justice, mercy, and humility endure

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that God so loved the world to give God’s only Son

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that Jesus is the transcript in time of God in eternity

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that all God’s children are precious in God’s sight

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe grace and forgiveness are the heart of the universe

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe that God has loved us personally

People:   And we do

The Dean: If we believe in God

People:   And we do

The Dean: Then we shall trust God over the valley of the shadow of death

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust that love is stronger than death

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust the mysterious promise of resurrection

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust the faith of Christ, relying on faith alone

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust the enduring worth of personality

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust that just deeds, merciful words are never vain

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust the Giver of Life to give eternal life

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust the source of love to love eternally

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust that we rest protected in God’s embrace

People:   And we shall

The Dean: Then we shall trust in God

People:   And we shall.

A Meditation on the Passion Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Deliver Us From Evil, 2005

 

The Dean:   To the question of evil let us live our answer by choosing the cruciform path of faith.

People:   Let us meet evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity.The Dean: Let us carry ourselves in belief.

People:   Let us affirm the faith of Christ which empowers to withstand what we cannot understand.

The Dean:   Let us remember that it is not the passion of Christ that defines the Person of Christ, but the Person that defines the passion.

People: Let us remember that it is not suffering that bears meaning, but a sense of meaning that bears up under suffering.

The Dean: Let us remember that it is not the cross that carries the love but the love that carries the cross.

People:   Let us remember that it is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses even the tragedy of crucifixion.

The Dean: Let us remember and that it is not the long sentence of Holy week, with all its phrases, dependent clauses and semi‐colons that completes the gospel, but it is the punctuation to come in seven days, the last mark of the week to come in 168 hours, whether it be the exclamation point of Peter, the full stop period of Paul or the question mark of Mary—Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around. The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross. The cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life that has the last word and there is a God to whom we may pray, in the assurance of being heard: “Deliver us from evil”

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

A Country Called Life

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

 

Intro Prayer: Please Pray with me: Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight. Amen.

It is good to be here with you all on this sunny spring morning. I send gratitude to Dean Hill for inviting me to speak this morning at this historic pulpit and many thanks to all of My Marsh Chapel friends and family who have supported me in my new role as the Chaplain for International students here at Boston University.

My husband, Carson, and I moved to Boston in the middle of June with just enough time to be completely enveloped into the Red Sox fandom as they marched towards the world series-which was truly a joy and a blessing and felt like a right of passage into Boston life. However, this means that this past winter has been our first Boston winter. In some ways nearly 5 months of winter, 54 inches of snow, and endless salt foot prints in our front hallway seemed like a rite of passage into becoming a true Bostonian. But many days, especially nearing February and March, I felt as though the winter was never going to end. I felt as though this must be a winter akin to Narnia-endless snows until some sort of curse is lifted; or perhaps Boston was experiencing a 5-year long Game of Thrones style winter. The phrase ‘winter is coming’ was transformed to ‘winter is here-and with a vengeance’.

I began to feel hopeless. When I came into work on especially chilly days, I would ask my colleagues at Marsh when it would all end. I asked practical questions:  how long winter lasted year, when does the snow turn to rain, what happened the year before and the year before, what is the absolute worse-case scenario I need to emotionally prepare myself for? (could there possibly be snow in JUNE?). They were sympathetic and offered me much comfort but my colleagues and friends also assured me that-to this day- there is absolutely no accurate prediction method for New England weather. I yearned for spring as I have never yearned for spring before. I would sit in my favorite chair by the window and read John Keat’s poem “Ode to a Nightingale” and hold onto his phrase ‘oh, for a beaker full of the warm south’. I wondered after all this winter, how could anything possible grow ever again? How could even the strongest seed take root in such frozen soil and live?

Our text for this Sunday is a familiar one-Ezekiel 37:1-14. We have seen this vision many times before-Ezekiel stands amidst a desolate valley of dry bones and prophesies them to life. . This story has become an important part of our religious narrative for centuries. It’s a passage that holds liturgical importance for both Christians and Jews alike.  In the Christian tradition-this passage is featured every year of the 3 year rotation of the Revised Common Lectionary-we use that lectionary here in Marsh Chapel, as do many other Christian churches around the world. The story of the Valley of Dry Bones falls on liturgically important Sundays in this lectionary: This year it falls on the fifth Sunday of Lent, next year it will be the text for the Easter vigil, and the following year it will fall on the Sunday of Pentecost. In the Jewish tradition, Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones falls on Passover every year. This passage is familiar because we come to it every year as winter beckons into spring.  This passage is familiar because each year we are called to it to find new understanding as winter comes to an end.

Before we explore Ezekiel’s prophetic vision, we need to look at the current state of being for the Israelites for whom the vision was originally shared. The Israelites were a broken people suffering from what felt like an eternal winter in their lives. To paint you a picture-6 years before this vision comes to them, the people of Israel had been captured, killed, and enslaved by evil king. Jerusalem, there holy city has been sacked, burned, and invaded. Enslaved and starving, these people feel as though they have broken covenant with God, and will suffer to the end of their days. There homeland, there family, and there lives lay in ruins. John Calvin, our companion through this Lenten season, states that to the Israelites-dispersion, being carried off to Babylon ‘was very much like death’.  We see in this passage in Ezekiel 37:11 a most sorrowful cry, a true lament. The people cry out,

“Our bones are dried up,

and our hope is lost.

We are cut off completely.”

 

In this lament, the people of Israel are not asking for help, they are not asking for God’s forgiveness; they have no request for a sliver of grace-they simply, mournfully accept their dreary existence and commit to the fact they are already dead. Hopelessness seeps in from the very roots of their souls and evolves into life-less-ness. The very notion of life collapses around them. The people of Israel walk on as skeletons without a joy or a song in their hearts. They are in Ezekiel’s desolate valley; they are the dry bones. When in a vision from God, Ezekiel is brought to view this valley of dry bones, it is not an abandoned cemetery, or an elephant graveyard, or a battlefield he sees, but the dry bones themselves are the people of Israel.

We have all experienced these valleys of desperation, these seemingly endless winters. In the United States we live in a culture supports a system where living and life are two completely different things. For instance, we often say ‘we make a living’ as we talk about money; and comment ‘I need to get a life’ as we talk about social interactions. Living becomes something we simply do; are even obligated to do-and life becomes just one possible, probably unlikely outcome of that living.  I myself have fallen into a negative cyclical rotation of living what was not life-and I see so many of my friends and family struggle with the same habitual system:  we get up, go to work, come home, watch TV, go to bed, get up, go to work, come home, watch TV and go to bed. Once in a while a moment occurs where we question whether or not this is really life at all.

Linked to this system, there is a glorification of busy-ness that runs rampant in our midst. Every time someone asks “how are you doing?” we feel the need to reply ‘exhausted. Busy. Stressed. I’ve done so much today. I have so much to do.’ We feel that if we don’t appear busy, we think we don’t appear to be valuable, successful, or whole. We think that if we aren’t busy all the time, we aren’t contributing members to society.   And while these things may be true-we may have a very busy schedule in all reality and have a lot of things on are to-do lists, but we chug along without really experiencing anything, without really living out life. We exist, we work until we are dry bones, we burn out, and we fall into Ezekiel’s valley-where all seems hopeless, it feels like you can never escape from this tedious cycle, and your life has somehow slipped away from you into rote actions and movement created solely out of habit. Sometimes we don’t notice our own shallow valleys, we just keep swimming and feel that everything will be fine someday. Other times we sink into the dry earth of the valley so deeply that the desolation seeps into our spirits and is transformed into deep depression, unhappiness, non-contentment, or listlessness.

I meet with Boston University students every single day of my week, and consistently-at least once a week-I meet with a student who feels so overwhelmed-so incapacitated by busyness and stress at all the things on their to-do list, that they can hardly move; let alone live. I meet with International students who feel like they are just barely treading water to keep up with all the cultural differences, nuances, and systems that they need to embrace to simply keep up with their school work. I see colleagues, friends, and family member who feel plagued in a listless cycle of confounding stress. I’ve found myself in these dark valleys of lifeless living and contention. If you have every found yourself in this valley, you are not alone in this. If you have every found yourself standing amidst these dry bones, know that you are not alone. Thousands of years ago the Israelites found themselves in this dark and dreary place, in the same way we often find ourselves there now. Elie Wiesel, a well-known holocaust survivor, prolific writer, and good friend of Boston University once said about this valley of dry bones-state of being “Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dried bones bears no true date because every generation needs to hear in its own time that this valley exists and that these bones can live again”. Every generation, every culture, every person experiences this valley, this winter. But Wiesel especially notes-that every culture, every generation, every person can live again into a spirit-filled spring.

Dr. Kathryn Pfisterer Darr, a beloved professor of Hebrew Bible at our very own Boston University school of Theology, and one of the leading Ezekiel scholars of our era states that the great hope of this text is that true, fulfilling life is only one breath away. A single breath.  But the difficulty of realizing this hope is that we are so often limited by our own understanding of what our lives can hold, can handle, can truly live out-that our own limitations prevent us from embracing the reality of life-the opportunities we have to live. But God’s understanding, God’s sight and vision are so much greater and wider than we could possibly see. I’m reminded of a tale I once heard while I was living and studying in Tamil Nadu, India. I met a man from the island of Sri Lanka named Jude. One day we began talking about this passage in Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones-we were discussing the limitations of human understanding verses the limitations of God’s vision in the passage. Jude told me this native tale,

“Once many years ago, there were two twins living in a womb. A boy and a girl, who were almost fully-grown. They enjoyed their life, filled with nutrients food, and comfort in the womb. But at times it seemed redundant, dull, and there was no more growing to do. One day, the girl twin said to the boy, “I feel as though there must be more than this. I feel as though there might be something called a mother.” The twin boy retorted “that’s ridiculous-this is all we have. We can see our whole world from here there is no mother. There is nothing else.” A few days later the twin girl spoke again, “I really am starting to believe that something is holding us, caring for us, that we are inside a great mother.” The twin boy replied, “there cannot be a mother, we have lived like this our whole lives-there is nothing else.” But the baby twin girl remained convinced and held onto the belief that something was beyond her limits of understanding, and the mother understood things she could not. Little did they know that at any moment these two twins could be born, into a completely new and different world and would be transformed by it. God shares this same wider understanding with Ezekiel and the entire populace of Israel becomes reborn and transformed in new understanding.

Ezekiel stands before a valley filled with dry bones and God asks, ‘can these bones live?’; wisely, Ezekiel affirms that God’s understanding is wider and bigger than his own and says “only you know, O God.” With that, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to these bones to make them live. As Ezekiel does this, bones are joined with bones, sinews re-grow, flesh clings and thrives-miraculously these bodies are re-membered. In his prolific Institutes, John Calvin states that this vision corrects the unbelief of the people-previously the people of Israel, much like us, believed that they were too far out of God’s reach. Too far gone. The importance of Ezekiel 37 to Calvin is to prove that this is always and forever an incorrect assumption, that we are indeed never beyond the reach of God’s restoration. God is more extensive than they could possibly imagine. They are made whole, the people of Israel are restored to fully human form-not just a slave, or a lost soul, or a skeleton, but fully flesh. God breathes into these people of the valley and they are given breath, spirit, true life. The Hebrew term for breath here is ruac’h-a familiar word meaning breath that we have witnessed many times before. We saw God breathing life into Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:7, much in the same way we see God breathing that same breath of life here in the Israel people after years and years of exile and torment. God is still breathing today into us and beckoning us into the Country Called Life.

This year I have been undertaking a spiritual discipline of reading poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke every morning. Rilke is a prolific German and Dutch poet whose insights I find to be just as poignant and personal now as they were a hundred years ago when he wrote them. Rilke and I have been on a journey together this year, and I feel as though he is teaching me more fully how to live, and especially how to live in the presence of the Sacred. His poem “Go to the Limits of Your Longing” aptly brings forward the hope restored in Ezekiel. The poem reads:

 

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,

Then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,

Go to the limits of your longing,

Embody me.

Flare up like flame

And make big shadows I can move in

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going.

No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the Country called life..

You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

 

We are often called out beyond our recall-called to do more than we can handle. We are beyond our recall when we fill our lives with busy-ness and meaningless motions. At times it seems all we can do is to just keep going. But we are called by the Divine Sacred spirit of God to go to the limits of our longings, to experience every single thing: beauty and terror. When we choose to live we embody the compassion, peace, justice, and spirit of the holy. We can flare up like flames and dance in the fire of life.

Friends, just as surely as today is a spring day-55 degrees and sunny, so your life is only a single breath away, your life is one moment with God’s imbibing spirit away. You are offered the same restoration of the Israelites-the chance to live-to truly live; to step out of the monotonous motions and into a season of spring full of life, full of the spirit of God. Through our endless Boston winter, seeds still have taken root; they are growing and living despite the frozen earth. We have been in the valley of dry bones; we have lingered there, suffered there, but nearby is the country called life.  When we breathe, may we breathe the breath of God and we move into life. May we go forth into this spring seeking out life in the fullness of the spirit. Amen.

Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, University Chaplain for International Students