Archive for May, 2014

In the Love of God

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

Acts 17: 22-31

Psalm 66: 8-18

1 Peter 3: 13-22

John 14: 15-21

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I. Learn to love what you do not understand – God

So, here we are in Marsh Chapel with its Cram designed neogothic nave, its Connick stained glass, and its Casavant organ.  Just as we have had four deans of Marsh Chapel named Bob, apparently if you want to work on the infrastructure of the chapel your last name must start with “C.” Here we are, listening to texts written neigh on two millennia ago, singing songs sung over the past five centuries, and yet inflicted with a preacher only three decades old.  Here we are, in a chapel dwarfed by its surrounding schools and colleges, at the heart of a great research university, in the midst of the city that Oliver Wendell Holmes cited as “the Hub of the Solar System.”  Here we are, pausing for a moment of awe, groping for a touch of wonder, steeped in the richness of history, and inspired by the presence of mystery.  Here we are, come Sunday, that’s the day.

Do you know why you are here?  My parents and my in-laws are here because I put coming to church on their itinerary for their trip to Boston, but the rest of you are here of your own volition.  You have no excuse!  What are you doing here?  Why have you come?  What possessed you, motivated you, inspired you to either make the trek in to church, or to flip on your radio, or to navigate to our live stream, or to download our podcast?  And on Memorial Day weekend, no less!

Well, the reason that most people come to a major research university is that they do not know.

Now Brother Larry, you’re starting to sound like that student last semester cited in The Bunion, Boston University’s satirical student newspaper: “Rich Girl in Dining Hall Can’t Even.”  Just as a fictional employee in the story wonders, “What can she not even? … That’s barely half a sentence!” so too we have to ask, they do not know what?  What is it that they do not know?

Well, dear friends, particularly in the case of matriculating undergraduates, the answer again is: they do no know.  That is, they do not know what they do not know.  Before you can learn what you want to know, first you have to learn what you want to know.  At the masters level, of course, we expect you to at least have some idea of the general field out of which your questions arise.  Then at the doctoral level we expect you to have honed your question to such a narrow degree that you can write a dissertation entitled something like “The use of the conjunction ‘and’ in the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson written between May 1 and May 17, 1841.”  (They’re funny.  They think I’m kidding!).  Of course, the greatest accomplishment of a PhD is learning exactly how much it is that you do not know.

Why would you go to a university if you already know?  Libraries are places where knowledge is stored; universities are places where knowledge is pursued.  But here’s the thing: at their best, churches are more like universities than they are like libraries.  That is, church should be a place we come to pursue God, not a place where God is packed away in storage.  In the life of the church, God is the great unknown for whom, as Paul says in our reading today from the Acts of the Apostles, we would search, and perhaps grope, and find.  Paul identifies the God of Christ with the unknown god of the Athenians.  Then, rather than presenting knowledge about their unknown God, Paul goes on to further affirm God’s unknowability.  God is not like things we can know, like images made of gold, or silver, or stone, “formed by the art and imagination of mortals.”  Rather than knowledge, Paul presents a paradox: “God who made the world and everything in it … is Lord of heaven and earth,” and yet God “is not far from each one of us.”  God is transcendent and immanent; God is aloof and intimate.

This is why we have come, and more, this is why we were made: to be struck by awe, to be transformed in wonder, to emerge from history into the heart of mystery.  We are travelers on a journey, not dwellers in a homestead.  We are learning, we are traveling, we are growing, here on Sunday, and day by day in the classroom, and the laboratory, and the field site, we learn to love what do not know, we learn to love what we do not understand, we learn to love God.

God is here! As we your people

meet to offer praise and prayer,

may we find in fuller measure

what it is in Christ we share.

Here, as in the world around us,

all our varied skills and arts

wait the coming of the Spirit

into open minds and hearts.

II. Embodied feeling of God – Spirit

On this Memorial Day weekend I remember my childhood friend Marion McCrane.  Now, Marion was my childhood friend because she was my friend when I was a child, even though Marion herself was of an age to be my grandmother.  She and her sister Edna lived across the street from us, and my brother and I would go over to spend time with them, to hear their stories, to explore the antique artifacts of their childhood and family, to pet their three dogs and two cats, and to help care for the flora that proliferated under their deliberate care and guidance in both front and back yards.  Marion died this past fall, and I had the privilege of presiding at her funeral.  In preparing to lay Marian to rest, I found this story in Bernard Livingston’s book Zoo, Animals, People, Places.

One of the more interesting examples of skillful simulation of motherhood for a zoo animal was the experience … of Marion McCrane in hand-rearing a two-toed sloth born at the National Zoo.  The two-toed sloth is a nocturnal creature that spends practically its whole life – eating, sleeping, traveling – suspended upside down in the trees by its limbs.  The infant lies on the mother’s abdomen as she lethargically moves about the forest.  Ms. McCrane, as a zoologist on the National staff, had hand-reared everything from monkeys to snakes, but as far as they knew nobody had ever hand-reared a two-toed sloth before…

Ms. McCrane was equal to the challenge.  After experimenting with a number of techniques that did not quite work she managed to succeed in simulating the precise position that an infant sloth assumes while nursing in his upside-down world.  And a bottle of half-strength evaporated milk did the trick for little Mary Jane…

Ms. McCrane solved the material-contact problem by housing Mary Jane in a strong basket packed with towels, blankets, hot water bottle and a muff to which the infant clung as a substitute for her mother’s abdomen.  The waking nocturnal hours were filled in with feeding and a bit of clinging to Ms. McCrane herself.

Can there be any experience of greater awe and wonder than that of mothering love?  Here was Marion, living out of the history of her own experience and into the mystery of mothering this small, vulnerable creature in love.  As Jesus said, Marion lived, “I will not leave you orphaned.”

For Paul, we do not know God, and yet in God “we live and move and have our being;” God “is not far from each one of us.”  We do not know God, but we feel God, we encounter the mystery of God in our bodies.  Awe and wonder are not thought; they are felt.  We feel God in the quickening of the heart, in the shortness of breath, in the fleeting failure of words and concepts.  It was the great Protestant theologian, and grandfather of liberal theology, Friederich Schleiermacher, who said that religion is “the feeling of absolute dependence.”  We do not know but we feel ourselves dependent on God for our very being and the world in which we live and move.

We do not know God but we feel God and we desire God.  Jesus, speaking in the voice of John the Evangelist, does use the language of knowledge to describe our relationship with the Advocate, the Spirit of truth.  But is this the knowledge of facts or the knowledge of lovers?  Well, apparently we will know the Spirit because the Spirit “abides with” us, and “will be in” us.  This hardly seems like knowledge acquired by pure reason.  Rather this is the language of eros, of desire, of embodied feeling.  “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”  To be sure, erotic language in relation to God is dangerous.  There is a reason that our Jewish brothers and sisters prohibit reading the Song of Solomon until you are both married and have passed your thirtieth year.  Nonetheless, what other language could express the intimacy that is the embodied feeling of God other than the language of desire between lovers or the image of the loving and nurturing parent?  “I go and I will come to you and your heart shall rejoice.”  We know, in that we feel, in our bodies, the love of the unknown God in the intimate presence of the Spirit.

O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear,
And kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn, til earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;

And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long,
Shall far outpass the power of human telling;

III. Suffering persists – Christ

And yet, suffering persists.  Our feeling the glory and love of God, while it may transform suffering, does not overcome it.  “The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross.  The cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection.”  The Advocate, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth accompanies us on the journey of life and faith into the never-ending depths divine unknowability, but cannot walk the path for us.

On this Memorial Day weekend we remember too many who have endured suffering and death as a result of human failure: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.  In the end, these seven deadly sins are our human succumbing to fear: lust is the fear of solitude, gluttony the fear of hunger, greed the fear of poverty, sloth the fear of being overwhelmed, (no offense to Mary Jane!), wrath the fear reconciliation, envy the fear of being enough, and pride the fear of being wrong.  Alas, these sins are all too often most deadly to those who surround those who commit them.

In March, Bishop Elias Toume, Greek Orthodox bishop of the Valley of the Christians in Syria gave the keynote address at the annual Costas Consultation on Global Mission hosted by the Boston Theological Institute.  He spoke of the suffering of Christians in Syria, in the midst of the suffering of the Syrian people generally.  He reminded us that Christianity was, in a sense, born in Syria, with Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.  He wonders whether Christianity now will die in Syria.  Bishop Elias told the story of facilitating a prisoner exchange between the military and the rebel forces, in which some of his congregants were caught in the middle.  At the end he said, “Being a bishop is not about going to parties and presiding at ceremonies.  Being a bishop is about being ready, at a moments notice, to lay down your life for your people.”

“But if you suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.  Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated… For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” (1 Peter 3: 14 & 18).

Abide, then, in the love of the unknowable God.  Feel the flaming desire of the Spirit in your heart, in your gut, in your spirit.  And even in the midst of suffering, keep the commandments of Christ, whom God has appointed to judge the world in righteousness.  Amen.

 

~ Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+

University Chaplain for Community Life

University Baccalaureate

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

Click here to listen to the University Baccalaureate service.

Click here to watch the video from BU Today.

Boston University’s 2014 Baccalaureate speaker was Dr. Nancy Bishop, Amgen, Inc., Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For more information, please see the BU Today article.

There will be no sermon text posted for this Baccalaureate address.

This I Believe

Sunday, May 11th, 2014

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The This I Believe speakers from 2014 were Charlotte Saul, Jenny Hardy, Robert Lucchesi and Brian Sirman.

Means of Grace

Sunday, May 4th, 2014

Luke 24

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New Creed

 

We believe in God

Who has created and is creating

Who has come in the true person, Jesus, to reconcile and make new

Who works in us and others by the Spirit.

We trust in God.

God calls us to be the church, the Body of Christ.

To celebrate Christ’s presence

To love and serve others

To proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen

Our Judge and our Hope

In life, in death, in life beyond death

God is with us

We are not alone

Thanks be to God

 

Karen Daly

            Karen Daly spoke at Sargent College last week.  She is a courageous nurse.  In the ER one afternoon she was accidently stuck by an infected needle, contracting Hepatitis C and Aids, some twenty years ago.  She spent many years then successfully combating these diseases, both in her own body and also in the halls of congress.  This Sargent lecture each year is one of the very best moments available at BU for pastoral preparation.  It is theological without being theological.  She told her story.  After living with the realization that she was infected for some days, in a kind of stupor, she received a phone call from her new doctor.  Somehow he found her, though she was thousands of miles away.  He said:  “I am your new physician.  You are going to be fine”.  She said for the first time she began to feel human again.  Weeks later the doctor gave her his home phone number.  He said, “If you cannot sleep at night and are worried, don’t worry alone.  You call me.  We will talk”.  She said that for the first time she began to think she might get better.  Salvus is the latin word for health.  Salvation is healing.  Healing comes through words and through fellowship, preaching and sacrament.

 

 

Luke 24

            Our gospel summarizes resurrection to preaching and communion.  Not to try to boil us down to grandchildren of Rudolph Bultmann, but this long narrative depicts Jesus Risen as the telling of the good news and the sharing of the bread and cup.  The difference resurrection makes is the possibility of preaching and the availability of sacrament, both means of grace.

I remember an Anglican cleric, whose journalist interrogator asked about the precipitous numerical demise of the Church of England.  “What will happen when there are almost no members left and all the buildings are sold?” he was asked.  “Well, I guess then we will find a Bible, a table, a cup, a plate, some bread, some wine, and we will start over”.

What happens in Luke 24, as you have just heard, is what happens at Marsh Chapel on Sunday morning.  People on a journey gather.  The Scripture is read, and more importantly, interpreted in preaching.  The table is set and the meal is served.

That’s it, folks.

Not much to go on, you might and rightly say.  A simple meal and some fairly simple words.

Seniors

This morning we gather up in prayer the experiences of four years:  the learning, the growth, the change, the gladness, the adventure, the losses, the tragedy, the trauma, the friendships, the successes, the mistakes, the loves, the heartaches, the happiness, and lift them all in a spirit of grace and peace.

This morning we embrace the young graduates of 2014, as they commence with the rest of life, in a world ever a stage, with men and women merely players, in a lifetime taking many parts:  infant, schoolchild, lover, soldier, judge, retiree, convalescent, and we lift them all in a spirit of grace and peace.

This morning we open ourselves to the world around us, to all its great gifts and all its crying needs, mindful of other young people who in this hour lack raiment, lack shelter, lack nourishment, lack health, lack freedom, and pledge ourselves to live not only in this world but also, and more so, for this world, in a spirit of grace and peace.

Our prayer:  four years, one class, our world.

As the grace for our meal I invite you to join with me in a prayer written by John Wesley.

Wesley was the founder of Methodism, the religious tradition that gave birth to Boston University in 1839.

His breakfast prayer exemplifies that tradition:

The words are simple:  that is significant

The language is universal:  that is significant

The tone is thankful:  that is significant

The phrasing is memorable:  that is significant

It is a prayer fit for use in a call and response manner, as we shall this morning:  that too is significant:

Gracious Giver of all good

Thee we thank for rest and food

Grant that all we do or say

May in thy service be, this day

Voices

            Flanner O’Connor:  “I would like to be intelligently holy.”

DJHall:  ‘ours is a religion that must share spiritual nurture of the world with many other faith traditions…

Paul Theroux, advice to writers:  “1. Leave Home.  2. Go Alone.  3. Stay on the Ground… “

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.’

St.Chrysostom:  “A just, useful and suitable intercession…The poor are necessary for the spiritual well-being of the rich…Your brother is more truly God’s temple than any church building…Show a natural compassion…To make you humane for your own salvation…Enjoy luxury in moderation, give the rest away…God:  Scripture, Sacraments, Poor…Those who are sent out to be dependent upon the hospitality of others: the apostolic ministry…’Ministry is mendicant’…The sign of the mendicant church calls forth generosity…Serve the poor under all conditions and circumstances…The poor are the bearers of God’s spirit in the way that the rich are not…All goodness in the world is a reflection of God’s grace…”

Two Friends

           I recall two friends, recently deceased:  Jim Burchett (69); Bill Hardoby (62).  My pastoral ministry to Jim, a corporate leader, and to Bill, a psychiatrist, is finished.  Whatever it is, it is over.  Did they receive grace?  Were their souls healed, saved. ‘If anyone is damned, Jesus has failed…I can tell you how the world works.  But we still have to decide what it means…The world is absurd, but faith is an act of faith.’ (R Cooper).  Did they live?  Did they live before they died?  Did they know love? Were they loved?  Did they love?  As they died, did they have care: personal, physical, pastoral?  Did they die in fear or trust?  Were they practically ready?  Did they have a will, funeral plans, a burial plot, finished conversations? (OOPS).  Did they die in fellowship with God?  Did they die in friendship with God and others?  What regrets did they harbor, what unshared hurts, what secret sermons, what despair, what deferred desire?  What models for dying, for a good death, did they have?  Did they die in belief, believing in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting?  In their last months, or days, when they wanted to talk, was there anyone there?

These two men worked hard, played by the rules, achieved and succeeded.  They took big responsibilities for their long marriages, gifted children, extended families, communities of fellowship and meaning, and to some degree, their environment, legacy, and world.  They were men.  Good men.  They ‘did their duty’.  Were they happy? At peace? Centered? Satisfied? Contrite? Humble?

Did my friendship and pastoral care provide the right space, depth, meaning, hearing, word, example to ‘bring them home’?

For Jim, the church was central.  For Bill, the church was peripheral.  For both, the church was meaningful.

Ancient Creed

Said Thomas, ‘My Lord and my God’.  Our faith, expressed in the creed, says much the same

1.  I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth

A light angelic voice, a crisp little line.  The ancients said only what they needed to, here.  God made the world.  God set the conditions for the world to be.  God created.  Heaven—things invisible.  Earth—things visible.  There is no attempt to explain the fallen darkness of the world, here.  There is no avoidance of the absolute mystery, here.  There is a just an abrupt statement:  God created.

2.  And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried…

A clear voice, narrative and personal.  Jesus is our guide, our measure, our Lord above all Lords.  His life is the line of God in the sand of time.   Sent with the love that only a Dad can know and give to a Son known and loved.  Conceived with the joy of passion in spirit.  Born of the best of women, like every birth an absolute miracle itself, a smoking cradle.  Who suffered, and suffered in a social political matrix, under the thumb of the ruler of the age—suffering particular, local, individual and unappreciated.  Who died an ignominious death, stretched out as a common criminal among others common and criminal.

…The third day he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father, from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

A trumpet angelic voice, sonorous and somber and serene.  Heaven is His.  He is ours.  What else shall we take with us?  Who else could we ever expect to judge us?  Easter is the victory of the invisible heaven or the visible earth.  There is a judgment for life and for death and for the living and for the dead.  And Love has the last word.

3.  I believe in the Holy Spirit:  the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

A sweet voice.  Placing you at the global table.  Feeding you with the fellowship of greatness.  Steadying you with mercy, mercy, mercy.  (If you take no other clue from Easter, take along an inclination to forgive).   The capacity for renewal of the church, and so by extension of your spirit, soul and body.  The confidence that life outlasts death within the mystery with which we began.

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