Archive for November, 2014

Waiting for Christmas

Sunday, November 30th, 2014

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Luke 2:22-40

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Good morning.

Would you pray with me?

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing and acceptable to you this day, O provident God, our strength and our redeemer.

Let me first begin by thanking Bob Hill for the opportunity to be with you as your preacher today. If you have read the chapel’s term book, printed this summer, you may know that Dean Hill was scheduled to be preaching today. More on that in a moment.

When talking with people about where I work, I often refer to Marsh Chapel as a “teaching church,” fulfilling that role of providing hands-on training for the next generation of clergy, in much the same way that so many of our local hospitals, as “teaching hospitals” prepare a new generation of medical doctors. At the chapel, we employ undergraduate students in a paid internship as they discern vocation and explore the practices of ministry and leadership. As a contextual education field placement site, the chapel hosts seminarians in their second and third years of study, as they hone the skills necessary for both for local church ministry and for leadership in nonprofit settings and the academy. Finally, the chapel retains a few “emerging” church leaders, each with advanced theological training, as members of the university’s part-time chaplaincy staff, usually charged with the management of one or another of the chapel’s specialized ministries. My wife and I are fortunate enough to be part of this third group. Like several of our Chapel Associate colleagues, we are entering the final stages of the process toward ordination in our respective denominations.

Each of our categories of part-time staff, our Marsh, Ministry, and Chapel Associates, are on a learning journey. Yes, our time here at Marsh is spent in service to the chapel community and the university more broadly, but we are also preparing for other kinds of leadership and service in the world. It is the same work of preparation taking place across the university day by day, week by week in laboratories, classrooms, and lecture halls. Being part of a university community predisposes people to being in a mode of expectation – whether for the completion of a hard-earned degree, the beginning of a new job or new career, or simply the publication of an article. Students, doctoral students especially, are accustomed to waiting a long time, but when the happy, long-expected moment comes, our joy is also the joy of the community around us. Here at Marsh we have celebrated one of those long-expected joys in the ordination to Christian ministry through the United Church of Christ of our friend and colleague Liz Douglass earlier this term.

Over the past several weeks, Jen and I have had the blessed task of completing 17 final requirements to be eligible to interview for ordination in the West Ohio Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. Among those tasks is the need to preach a sermon based on a set of texts selected by the conference board of ordained ministry. With the Dean’s blessing, I have the honor of standing before you today, working with those texts, in a final examination of sorts.

If, as you heard the scripture lessons this morning, you thought to yourself, these passages don’t sound much like the reading for the first Sunday in advent, you would be right. The prophesy from Isaiah declaring that “God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” is traditionally read alongside today’s gospel lesson which recounts Jesus’ presentation at the temple and subsequent identification as the Messiah first by Simeon and then by Anna. Depending upon your tradition, these texts are read either on the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, or for most Protestants, on the Sunday following Christmas during certain years of the lectionary cycle. The gospel lesson is most definitely not a traditional advent story; it is one of only a few stories about Jesus’ childhood. This is the same gospel text you will hear again at Marsh Chapel on December 28, when my wife satisfies her conference requirement with a better version of this sermon.

While the Gospel lesson is not traditionally a text for the advent season – it undergirds the contemporary observance of advent as a time of waiting for Christ to enter into the world. Our gospel narrative tells us that Simeon had waited with patience and prepared for Christ’s arrival. Similarly, our story implies that Anna had been waiting, preparing perhaps for decades for Christ’s arrival. What does this period of waiting and preparation look like?

Often in America today we experience the civic holiday of Thanksgiving as the beginning of “the Christmas season,” or at least that is what many retailers would have us experience. A variety of large department stores and other retailers opened on Thanksgiving Day this year to provide opportunity for shoppers to get “great deals” on their Christmas gift lists. For many, Thanksgiving has long been a time to spend with family – giving thanks for the important people in your life and the rich blessings we have. But as the commercialization of the Christmas season expands, those “once-a-year deals” come at a cost – an especially high cost for those at the margins of our economic system. For thousands of hourly employees, many making not more than minimum wage, they have little option but to work on Thanksgiving Day if they hope to keep their jobs.  I enjoyed much of Thursday visiting with my wife’s parents, grandmother, and extended family, but one of my wife’s cousins left the multigenerational family get-together quite early because she works at a retailer which was going to be open Thanksgiving evening all through the night and into the evening on Friday. Do we really live into the season of advent by shopping for deals on Thanksgiving Day? If we are to live into the righteousness foretold in the Isaiah text today, perhaps we, as a nation, ought rethink our practices of preparation for Christmas.

What ought we do to prepare for the celebration of Christ’s incarnation on earth? What does it mean to be waiting for Christmas? Last year, Marsh Chapel, through the leadership of my colleague, Chapel Associate Jessica Chicka, initiated the Sustainable Advent Project – an alternative to the consumerism run rampant during this time of year. You are able to sign up on the chapel website – bu.edu/chapel – for a daily email devotional which includes a sustainable practice you can enact to support the stewardship of God’s creation.

Perhaps you participated in Small Business Saturday yesterday. Yes, the annual event which encourages shoppers to patron small and local businesses is a trademarked shopping event presented by American Express, but the sentiment behind it – that we should be (and can easily be) more economically and ecologically responsible consumers – is a good one. If you haven’t finished your shopping lists yet – and still intend to do so – perhaps you can think about how you can use your dollars to support your local economy and workers at a fair wage while also reducing your carbon footprint.

Rev. Brittany Longsdorf and her husband Carson Dockum celebrate the advent season with an “advent tree.” They commit to writing notes to one another each day and leaving them for one another in numbered envelopes tied to the branches of the Christmas tree set up in the corner of their living room. Jen and I were so inspired by this that we skipped purchasing an advent calendar this year and have a wall of numbered envelopes in our apartment – approximating Brittany and Carson’s tradition. There is no single best way to prepare for Christ’s coming, but how will you walk closer with God as you wait for Christmas this season?

Simeon proclaims Jesus as a light for the world. In this season of waiting, can we also be reflections of Christ’s light in the world?

For many, the period of waiting in advent also coincides with a period of waiting for justice. The tragic shooting death of Michael Brown has rocked the nation.  Public demonstrations, many of which have been participated in by my own students at the School of Theology, are seeking to foster legitimate public discourse about continuing racial inequality in America. “Black Lives Matter” is more than just a hash tag. Yes, it is does appear regularly in my newsfeed, recently affixed to a portrait of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, here on BU’s campus, but it is so much more. It communicates the frustration felt by so many about the contemporary status quo in much of America. One theology student has flown to Missouri multiple times in the last several months to help organize and be part of the awareness-raising efforts there. To hear her speak with such conviction about the importance of using one’s body as a prophetic device is inspiring. Undoubtedly, she is a reflection of Christ’s light in the world. Her path is not an easy one to walk. But there are other things we are all able to do. We can start by having open and honest conversations with our neighbors about the variety of experiences we each have had with police, with employers, with mortgage brokers as we, as a country, seek to walk closer to God on a path toward justice for all. The reality is that I have not had the life experience of so many of my African American and Latino/Latina colleagues, but I need to know their stories if I am to be a helpful companion on the journey for justice.

How do we hear and learn each other’s stories? We need to be involved in the neighborhoods in which we live. My friend and colleague, Rev. Jay Williams, is the lead pastor of historic Union United Methodist Church in Boston’s South End and a doctoral colleague of my wife’s at Harvard Divinity School. Jay is leading Union with intentionality in developing neighborhood partnerships. In recent months, Union has been awarded several significant grants to further its ministry with and among Boston’s poor and at-risk communities. In 2015, the church expects to launch a new feeding ministry with a community partner out of the soon-to-be renovated community kitchen in the historic building. Many of you listening on the radio are part of religious communities with deep ties to your local communities through soup kitchens, free stores, and Freedom Schools. You can celebrate Christ’s incarnation into the world when you participate in these social justice ministries day by day and week by week, really becoming neighbors with those whom you serve and serve among.

A powerful instance of this work of dialogue – itself proclaiming the goodness of God’s love – was captured in a striking image on Friday. A photo, now captioned by several news outlets as “The hug shared around the world,” shows a 12-year-old African American, Devonte Hart, tearfully embracing a white police sergeant, Bret Barnum, at a demonstration in Portland, Oregon on Friday. Devonte was holding a sign reading “Free Hugs” as protestors gathered and milled about with police in Portland. In an act of radical hospitality, Devonte encountered complete strangers in conversation and offered a hug. As others had done, the police officer, Bret Barnum, also engaged Devonte in casual conversation but then, according to the Oregonian Newspaper, “He asked Devonte why he was crying. [Devonte’s] response about his concerns regarding the level of police brutality towards young black kids was met with an unexpected . . . ‘Yes. [A] *sigh* [and] I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’ The officer then asked if he could have one of [Devonte’s] hugs.”[1]

This radical hospitality is practiced each week by students in the group I Embrace You each holding “Free Hugs” placards on the plaza outside Marsh Chapel. Sid Efromovich, an undergraduate classmate of mine, founded the student group a number of years ago while participating in a United Nations youth think tank committed to finding radical, creative solutions for peace. The “Free Hugs” campaign is certainly not exclusive to BU; the simple gesture and conversation which ensues is practiced around the world in a variety of settings, and it has real, tangible results. If you feel drawn to this practice during advent, I Embrace You will give you on-site training to become a hugger yourself.

The act of kindness and finding common ground captured in the photo of Devonte and Bret’s embrace is exactly what Howard Thurman identified as part of the “the path of courageous, creative integrity.”[2] Devonte and Bret both refused to give into “fear, hypocrisy, and hatred,” what Thurman calls, “the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited.”[3] Together they wait actively for justice and their genuine act of dialogue announces the truth of Christ’s incarnation in this season.

As we seek to grow in righteousness this advent season, to walk the path of courageous, creative integrity with Thurman, may we, as Isaiah writes, not keep silent. May we have the strength of Devonte and Bret to actively wait for Christmas and to proclaim the Good News of the coming of the Messiah through courageous and creative words and deeds. Amen.


[1] See http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2014/11/post_495.html

[2] Vincent Harding’s forward to Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited.

[3] Ibid.

– Rev. Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership Development

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Christ the King

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

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Ezekiel 34:11-16

Psalm 100

Ephesians 1:15-23

Matthew 25:31-46

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Today is the Sunday known as “Christ the King”.  It’s the last Sunday of the Christian Liturgical Year.  Next Sunday begins a new church year. It’s the first Sunday in Advent, when we begin to wait for and celebrate the fact that Christ the King began with us as a baby.  But today, Christ is with us in his full maturity as he comes into his own as King, with glory, with power, and with judgment.

Jesus was a Jew.  His followers sometimes hailed him as “Son of David”, and both he and the lectionary compilers of today’s scriptures connected him to the tradition of the Shepherd/King.  We are probably most familiar with this tradition through David’s 23rd Psalm.  And in our Psalm today, God is our Creator, and our Shepherd, worthy of our praise and thanksgiving because God’s steadfast love and faithfulness endure forever.  The Shepherd/King tradition is also here in Ezekiel, who portrays God the Shepherd as the true King, the King who rescues, reunites, cares for, and protects the people – the true King over against the false kings, who have scattered the people and brought them to ruin and captivity in the Babylonian exile.  God the Shepherd is the one true King who judges not only those outside but those inside the flock.  And God will set up a permanent Shepherd in David, one who will feed the people and be their leader under God.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus is both King and Shepherd, as he separates and judges between those who have done what he has done and those who have not done what he has done.  Judgment as well as care and protection are within the mandate of the Shepherd/King, and judgment can be very harsh indeed against those who are fat and strong at the expense of the weak and injured, against those who do not recognize the King in his people.  It is a Last Judgment, in fact, with the choices we make today having eternal consequences.

Well, we who have been knocking around in the Christian faith for a while know all this.  We know it well enough that we have no excuse not to escape the eternal fire; we know that we are not to take advantage of the weak and injured, we know we are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoner. We know it all.  And, quite frankly, it’s November, and it’s dark and it’s cold, and those of us with bears in the gene pool just want to sleep.  Many folks have some kind of major deadline in the next two weeks, and midterm projects and papers are running right up to finals.  And while “the holidays” can be fun, the fun can often be hard to get to in the crush of activities and expectations, in the trepidations about costs and housecleaning, in the unknown as to whether Aunt Sue the conservative and Uncle Joe the liberal will still speak to one another at dinner.  To say nothing … to say nothing … of the upcoming Ferguson grand jury decision.  It can be a challenge to promote peace and goodwill when our response to “How are you?” is automatically “I’m Fine.”, and “I’m Fine.” really means “I’m Freaked Out, Insecure, Neurotic, and Exhausted.”  Right now there don’t seem to be many good pastures and certainly not any lying down in them.

Now I grew up in a British constitutional-monarchist family, and I still keep some track of Wills and Kate and Baby George.  I  appreciate sheep for the wool they provide my knitting and thus I appreciate the shepherds who take care of them. But I don’t see many hereditary rulers or shepherds on Commonwealth Avenue, and if I did it’s a pretty sure bet that most of the rulers would not consider the “least of these” the members of their family.  And what Shepherd in his or her right mind would destroy the fat strong sheep and keep the weak and injured as the mainstays of the flock?  Christ the King is a very strange monarch, and Christ the Shepherd makes no sense at all.

So what are we daylight-saving-timed, democratic, urban, living-in-New Englanders to make of all this?  What are we as the congregation listening over the radio, webcast, and podcast to make of all this?

Well, we’re the sheep.  We’re the people.  We are (forgive me for this) the sheeple.  That means we are the fat ones who batten on the scattered, lost, weak, and injured, even if only through the complexities and complicities of our lives — and, we are also the scattered, lost, weak, and injured ourselves.  That means we are the ones who cry “Lord, Lord” and then do not do what the Lord does – and, we are also the ones who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the prisoner.  How we end up in the Judgment depends on where the majority of our choices come down, and most of all to whom we finally give our allegiance.  If we as members of the flock first trust in God’s provision of nourishment, rest, and healing, and then we choose to help the Shepherd strengthen all of the Flock; if we as disciples choose to help the Monarch care for all the members of the family as we have been cared for; if our allegiance is finally to God through Christ in whatever form God through Christ is found:  Ruler, Shepherd, baby, teacher, then we move from being sheeple to become the Church.

And that, says the author of Ephesians, is where we have it all.  We become a Spirit-anointed community in which we are not alone, where we have hope, a glorious inheritance, and the immeasurable greatness of Christ’s power at work in and through us.  For as the Church we become Christ’s body, we become his fullness that fills everything, we become through the Spirit part of a cooperative  interbeing between Christ the head and we the body, an interbeing that even in November can bring the presence of God, the provision of God, the steadfast love and faithfulness of God, to each other and to the world.

Christ the Shepherd.  Christ the King.  Maybe.  But certainly the one to whom as Christians we pledge our allegiance, certainly the one who with the Godhead and the Spirit protects us, cares for us, provides for us at our deepest levels so that we are able to do the work we are called to do as his disciples – and maybe we can even be able to stay awake and move with peace and goodwill through deadlines, midterms and finals, and the holidays.  We know it all.  Even if some of the images are strange to our form of governance and where we live, the choice is always under the mercy and love of God, the choice is always ours.  When we choose to pay attention to the wisdom, knowledge, and power for good we have in the Spirit as God’s Church, when we claim these gifts in faith, then we can begin to recover our courage, our creativity, our individual and communal energy, then we can begin to find ways that will help us to nurture peace and goodwill between us and God, between us and ourselves, between us and our neighbors, and between us and creation.

So how can we best pay attention and claim our wisdom, knowledge, and power for good?  Well, in a few days it will be Thanksgiving.  A secular Federal holiday, as it happens, but just as Charles Wesley asked, so to speak,  “Why should the devil have all the good tunes?’, so he used secular tunes for Methodist hymns, we would not be the first to see the gifts of God in the secular turned to the purposes of worship.  Thanksgiving is in fact a major traditional form of worship and praise:  it’s found in many if not all faith traditions; and it is certainly a mainstay for Christians.  To join in the spirit of this Thursday holiday/holyday, to look around us and acknowledge the gifts we have been given, to claim them in faith with gratitude — all this is to put ourselves in the middle of God’s love, abundance, and provisions for our need, whether they are the wisdom, knowledge, and power for good we have as the Church, or the smile of a loved one, a delicious meal, a favorite tree or an animal companion, even the slow but steadfast stirrings of justice and peace.  In thanksgiving there is no fear, no anger, no discouragement; in thanksgiving there is no freaking out, insecurity, neuroticism, or exhaustion:  in thanksgiving there is only the happiness and wonder of the world and its riches.

So this Thursday, we might be a bit more intentional about our attitude of gratitude, to God and to others:  for instance, we could be very specific and detailed about the people and things for which we are grateful and why we are grateful for them; we could perhaps expand our notion of what we are grateful for; we might allow other people to be grateful for us; we might, greatly daring, speak aloud our gratitude to those people and about those things for which we are thankful; we might decide to make thanksgiving a more regular practice in our lives beyond this Thursday.  For it is when we pay attention to and claim in faith the gifts of God with thanksgiving that we can truly say, when asked about how we are, “We’re fine.”  Fine in the original senses of the word:  high-quality, first-rate, magnificent, exceptional, splendid.  Just fine.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

-Rev. Victoria Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

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Impermanence

Sunday, November 16th, 2014

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Micah 6:6-8

1 Corinthians 7:25-31

Matthew 25:14-30

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Preface: Five and Dime

 
If you have some change in your pocket come with me for a minute.   We are going into the village green five and ten cent store, to see what we can see.   Don’t you love this little store?  For fifty years—even more—the shop has somehow survived, meeting the essential impermanent desires of the day.   Here you buy pencils and notebooks for school, a scarf in the winter, a squirt gun in the spring, a yo-yo for summer, and come autumn again, something to wear at Halloween.  John Wesley said his English people were “a nation of shopkeepers”.  So in some regions, the small business, farm, store still provide economic backbone.  The same scents and smells linger here, from so long ago:  a mixture of newsprint and bubblegum and paint and perfume.   The uncovered tongue and groove wooden floor creeks in the same odd placesFor so many years this store was the stage on which its owner performed.  He wore a handlebar mustache, bright white hair, a stunning smile, and cackled with a child’s laugh.   He looked like the wizard of oz.  Years later, when I sat next to him as a fellow, visiting Rotarian, he looked the same—the wizard of oz.   His little world of tiny transactions, most of the purchases made by people who had to reach up to the counter, on tiptoe, somehow kept his soul lit.   Of all people, I guess, he could have had the most reason to doubt his role.  His customers were few and supported only by weekly allowances.  The transactions involved pennies and dimes.  The days were long, the hours demanding.  But the sun streaming through his clean window touched most often a smiling, happy face.   I can remember handing over some little coin in exchange for some little trinket.   In that little sunlight, over the exchange of impermanent capital for impermanent goods, somehow, there lingered a graceful, mysterious, spirited, permanence, too.  Maybe that is what made the wizard so happy.
 
When our son Chris was 6 years old, we went to the same store to buy birthday candles and a fishing pole.  Chris also saw some candy.  I turned to pick up the NY Times, and saw Chris reach up to the counter with his purchase.  The wizard stood gleaming and ready.   Then Chris took out his wallet and stared up.  He fished in the little pouch, and found his coin.  Then the wizard looked at Chris, and Chris looked at the wizard.   The old eyes darkened with delighted understanding, and the handlebar mustache twitched and the wrinkled hand reached forward.  And Chris held his ground and waited, fingering the coin, for that eternal moment that hangs between childhood and maturity.  There they stood, matador and bull, boxer and champion, batter and pitcher, wizard and boy.   As he had for decades, the shop-owner patiently paused. At last out came the coin. The deal was struck. 

Talents.  Talents invested, exchanged, used, given.  Well done thou good and faithful servant!  You have been faithful over a little.  We will set you over much.  Enter into the joy of the master.

I count it as a true, holy moment, as is any first experience, and especially any first experience of impermanence.   Sic transit gloria mundi.

Once we begin to reckon with the impermanence of this life, so much paper and candy and seasonal needs, there comes another longing.  For an experience of God.  There arises in the heart, a longing for an experience of God, for the lapping light of the morning to touch the cheek, for the full permanence of …grace, love, heaven…to enter our boyish, girlish, childish, or childlike life.

People come to church for an experience of God.  You would be surprised to know how hard, even in the ministry, it can be to keep this truth in view.  Men and women come to church, longing for an experience of divine love.

A place where the longing of the heart can be fed, that “desire of the moth for the flame, of the night for the morrow, the devotion to something afar from the sphere of our sorrow.”

1.     A Prophetic Approach to Impermanence

The same longing we have tried to witness in the crowded aisles of the village green five and dime also pulses through the deep places of the Scripture.   Blessed are those who hunger and thirst.  Micah Ben Imlah did hunger and thirst, too.  In the pain and tenderness of too much loving, he wondered how, if at all, such an experience could be his.

With what shall I come before the Lord?

What shall I do?   Whom should I love?  How should I walk?

Amid the piles and aisles of impermanent, seasonal goods, where an experience of lasting love?

A path toward the permanent, this is what Micah desires.  In the uses of his resources, Micah believes, there lies hidden the potential for an opening into an experience of God.  Underneath that apparently chaotic impermanence, there lies the potential for an opening into the experience of God.   Micah advises us not to get too comfortable.

Do.   We may learn to use our resources for the making of justice.

Love.  We may come to love what cannot be seen, mercy, and then to use what can be seen, money, rather than loving what can be seen and using what cannot be seen.

Walk.  Because our transactions, most days, involve bills and not coins, we, unlike the shopkeeper, we are more tempted to take ourselves overly seriously.

 2.     Paul and Impermanence

In this same vein, the Apostle to the Gentiles teaches us again today about impermanence.  Is this not a glorious and a liberating word?    In treating a matter of moral discernment among the wayward Corinthians, Paul asserts the impermanence of this world.  His blessed words are as strange for us as they are healthy to hear.

Paul advises us not to get too comfortable.   Marriage, death, birth, work, life, all—these Paul asserts are themselves impermanent goods, seasonal items in the aisles of life’s five and dime.  Good, holy, important, and, at last…impermanent.   Let those who buy do so as those who have no goods.  Let them recall that first experience, reaching up to the counter, of impermanence.   Let us treat our goods not in the form of this world, which is passing away, but in the form of the world to come

Here is a great blessing, for those with ears to hear.   Within the land of impermanence, there is the possibility of an experience of God.  It is for that experience… that touch of the divine hand upon the hand of the child of God… for which goods and seasonal items and crowded aisles and everything from five and dimes to great corporations exist.

When we give, we open the possibility of experiences of God, not necessarily for ourselves directly, although that may be, but more often indirectly for others.   Giving and generosity bless us because they open up the opportunity for an experience of God.

 3.     Impermanence Today

Now it is the autumn of the year.  November 2014.  Over six weeks, worthy causes and needy organizations will reach out to donors, generous supporters.  Some are here and some are listening this very morning.  Women and men are thinking about talents, about the coin in the pocket, and considering year-end giving.

Of course we strongly encourage your ongoing support of Marsh Chapel.  But many of you listening on the radio have your own churches.  You may be driving home from worship, listening to us.  You may be at home or at work this morning, listening.  And you have a church home, a church family, a church that needs your support.  I think prayerfully about you and your churches today.  I think about the good people in those churches.  I want to say an encouraging word about your giving to your church.

Every church is an adventurous ride on the tide of generosity.  You have no tax base in the church, like those which support schools.  You have no product to barter, like those that support businesses.  You live and die on the free choices, every fall,  that raise a tide of giving.  I wonder, sometimes, what would happen if the churches could not fund ministry?  What would happen to efforts with children and older folks, mission and outreach, staff and buildings, worship and music?

Every fall the churches wait for the tide, like surfers.  They crouch along the board, out beyond the San Diego Bay.  The sun is high, the sky is blue, the air is warm, the day is fine.  They feel the tide rising, and here it comes!  They stand, and put toes out on the board.  They hang ten.   And the tide rises, every year.  Thanks to freely chosen gifts.  Thanks to you.  Sometimes the tide is low, and we drift a little.  Sometimes the tide is high, and we spin.   The uncertainty that is the sign of real freedom for the giver and the gift is that warm and vivifying wind that feeds us.

Faithful people year in and year out generously, happily support the work of faith.  One is an elderly man, gracious and loving, who learned at an early age to tithe.  One is a fiercely able Trustee, who cares for the property and investments of the church, but who has a big heart for the poor in Honduras.  One is a woman who has prayed mission into life, and has had the grace to live with surprising answers to prayer, answers other than what she expected. They for and they come from experiences of God.

4. Taught to Give

What is lasting and good in my life has come from the church of Christ.  Name and identity in baptism.  Faith in confirmation.  Community in eucharist.  Wife and family in marriage.  Work, and vocation, in ordination.  Saving forgiveness in moments of  pardon.  Hope for heaven in the gospel of Christ.

Whatsoever has any permanence for me comes from the church.

So…I guess I would be lost in the fall without a chance to preach a Stewardship sermon.

I am here, really, out of a formation, long before adulthood,  in the midst of people who knew that the form of this world was passing away.  The superintendents who remembered to bring Christmas gifts, the military chaplainswho sat at the dining room table—they did so with an existential reserve, a freedom from the impermanence of this world, a joyful and sober sense that the form of this world is passing away.  “Don’t get too comfortable” they seemed to say in deed as well as word.  They modeled an existential itinerancy that is far more important the mechanical one we know too well in which, as we say, Bishops appoint—and disappoint. The ministers who came and sang hymns in our homes, who laughed at and with each other, and who prayed for the salvation of the world—they dealt with the world as if they had no dealings with it.  The people in our churches, churches supported then and now by the tithing of retired school teachers, who cared about the world and about the next generation—they knew the impermanence of the world around, and the brevity of our time here.  They tithed, and so what remains of our church remains.

Those who raised us, who could have had many more the goods of this passing world, lived with an aplomb, a grace, a savoir faire that better than any sermon interpreted 1 Corinthians 7.  Let those who mourn do so as if they were not mourning.  The discipline of the Methodists—this is your birthright, your legacy, your history, Marsh Chapel—comes from this presentiment about impermanence.

In our raising, you could have the courage to live on less, to itinerate at the direction, if not the whim of a superintendent, to pull up stakes and make new friends, to know the hurt and the excitement of a gypsie life.  How did they do this?  Because they believed in their bones that what lasts is not the various goods and seasonal items of the five and dime, but the touch of the wizard’s hand.  That gracious experience of God that comes in and through the impermanent cacaphony of life, and is primed by giving.

I wonder if we are ready to open the world up to experiences of God?

People come to church for an experience of God.  Giving is one doorway to such an experience.

5. An Experience of God

It is great blessing, that giving opens opportunities for experiences of God.  They come in God’s time and they come over time and they come to others.  But giving gives the chance for such an experience.

A while ago I had a wedding.  It was beautiful autumn day as so many have been this year.  The service was wonderful.  The organist played a version of “Love Divine” with bells that rounded off the service to perfection.  I was proud to be a part of it.  Later, in the ready room, a woman who had attended the service asked about my family.

We talked, and I discovered that she was from the North Country, upstate NY, and had been raised with some difficulty by a single mother.

Near Alexandria Bay?

“In Alexandria Bay.”

Did you know Rev. Pennock, who was there in retirement (who is Jan’s grandfather)?

All of sudden her face became red and her eyes filled.  I wondered what I had said to upset her.  This is the “joy” of the ministry–you enter a room and everyone is uncomfortable!  You make small talk and women cry!

“No”, she said, “you don’t understand…When I was a young woman, I barely could go to college.  Every semester I received a check from the Alexandria Bay church, money that was to pay for my voice lessons…This kept me going in college, not just the money, which was significant, but more so the thought, the fact that somebody believed in me, could see me with a future, outside of my struggling family and small town, and invested in me….”

By now we were both emotional.

What does that have to do with me?

“I learned a few years ago that your wife’s grandfather is the one who gave the money for those lessons!  His gift formed my life!

What are you doing today?

“I am the director of music for a Methodist church near Albany.  The bride grew up in my youth choir.  Music is my life.”

Over all those years, and so many miles, across such a great existential distance, look what happened:  I was given an experience of God, emotion laded and heartfelt and real and good, and even in church or at least almost, as a consequence of a gift made long ago and far away.   The hidden blessing of generosity is that giving opens the world to the possibility of experiences of God.  Rev. Harold Pennock is long dead.  His wife Anstress is long dead.  But after a wedding, in the late afternoon, his thoughtful kindness opened the world

Coda: A Midnight Prayer

Sometime later tonight, especially if the sky is clear and if the stars come out, I am going to walk out onto the esplanade.   The moonlight glistening on the frosted riverbank, the sound of squirrels scurrying with nuts to store, the smell of the dampened leaves, the taste of crisp autumn—the season of accountability—touching the tongue, hands clasped against the cold—now beneath a gleaming North Star it is time to offer a prayer.  I wonder if you would pray this with me sometime later tonight:

Dear God

                  Help me to love you this coming year by giving to others this coming year.

                  I am going to give away 10% of what I earn.  I am nervous about doing it.  I need your help.  I want to tithe, but the coin seems to stick inside the wallet somehow. I want to give but the counter top seems so high up.  I want to invest my talent in life by faith with hope but this is something new and I am nervous.  So I need your help.  Dear God.  Help me to love you this coming year by giving to others this coming year.

                  Amen

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

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The Bach Experience

Sunday, November 9th, 2014

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Matthew 25:31-46

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The Bach Experience

It was always YF; never MYF. Calling it MYF, or Methodist Youth Fellowship, failed to recognize the fullness of the denominational identity of the United Methodist Church, which resulted from a merger between the Methodist Church USA and the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968. Hailing from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Carl and Judy Rife came to us at Hughes United Methodist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland from the EUB side of the family tree. Carl is a United Methodist elder, while Judy’s ministry could only have been diminished by ordination.

Judy was one of our YF counselors, and in preparation for our annual Youth Service one year, she led us in a more profound exegesis of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats than any seminary curriculum could hope to achieve. When did we see you sick? We made tray favors for patients at Sibly Hospital. When did we visit you in prison? We visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. When did we see you hungry or thirsty? We served meals at Shepherd’s Table homeless services. When did we see you a stranger? We visited disabled neighbors in the affordable housing unit the church had built next door. When did we see you naked? We made quilts from scraps of our own clothes. Consider for a moment the spiritual fortitude of a woman who could teach more than two dozen suburbanite adolescents to appreciate the tradition of quilt-making, encourage us to participate in that tradition as a lived expression of faith, and inspire us to continue to live into the meaning of that act more than a decade and a half later.

Judy died on October 20th in York, Pennsylvania with Carl faithfully by her side as she breathed her last. She lived, in so many ways, a life of righteousness as depicted in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, and she died, I am confident, with something like the opening chorale of today’s Bach cantata on her lips: “Jesus, you who powerfully rescued my soul, be now, O God, my refuge.”

I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our ancestors have told us.

Like our readings for today, our cantata is rather, well, dark: bitter death; the devil’s dark pit; the anguish of the soul; the ill and erring; the leprosy of sin; blood that cancels guilt; wounds, nails, crown, grave; sin and death assail. Bach’s Augustinian Lutheranism can seem quite foreign to contemporary religious sensibilities. The cantata’s text is a stark reminder that faith is serious business, a matter of life and death, that faith addresses the grievously painful situation of blood guilt, and that faith places us in the existential situation of judgment under threat of eternal damnation. There but for the grace of God, say Augustine, Luther, and Bach, go we all.

The very terminology of blood, guilt, sin, anguish, and judgment press back against the proclivities of late modern religious consciousness toward what might be called, and has been called, moral therapeutic deism.[1] Moral therapeutic deism believes that God exists, created the world, and watches over human life; that God wants people to be good, nice, and fair; that the goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself; that God is not particularly involved in our lives; and that good people go to heaven when they die. Of course, this caricature of Christianity is subject to the same critique that H. Richard Niebuhr leveled against the Social Gospel movement in the mid-twentieth century for believing that “a God without wrath brought [humanity] without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[2] For moral therapeutic deism, there is little reason to take religion seriously, and thus to pay much attention to it. Religion in this vein is as Karl Marx described, the opium of the people.

Not so for Bach, or his theological predecessors, Luther and Augustine. For them, faith is intimate and works its way into our deepest vulnerabilities. It is there then, in our inmost selves, that we meet God, and where God’s presence with us is experienced as grace.

Lord, I believe, help my weakness,
Let me never despair;
You, You can make me stronger,
when sin and death assail me.

Such pietism, of course, must be careful, tending as it does to promise more than it can deliver. Even in a state of grace, we are, at times, yet given to despair. But without allowing for the seriousness of the religious claim for the deepest and often darkest parts of ourselves, what hope could there be in our times of despair?

Dr. Jarrett, tell us more about the hope Bach offers us in today’s cantata.

Thank you, Brother Larry. Today we present Cantata 78 – ‘Jesu, der du meine Seele’ or Jesus, by whom my soul. Written in September of 1724, our cantata dates from Bach’s second year as cantor of the Thomas Church in Leipzig, where his duties included weekly composition of a cantata for the Sunday liturgy. Bach’s texts that day were lessons from Galatians Chapter 5 urging Christians from the ways of the flesh to live in the spirit, and from Luke Chapter 11, in which Jesus heals the ten lepers. As is often the case, Bach draws poetic and musical inspiration from a familiar 17th century chorale tune, in this case Johann Rist’s 1641 Jesu, der du meine Seele. The text calls us to pin our sins on the cross with Jesus using particularly direct Passion imagery. As with Paul’s letter, there is no escaping the depravity of the flesh for Augustine, Luther, or with Bach.

But the theological and, thereby, musical trajectory of the cantata moves the Christian through a cycle of eagerness to cleave to the cross, the power of Christ’s redeeming blood, and the assurance of Christ as our breast plate in a world where Satan lurks to thwart our every thought and deed.

In the opening movement, Bach’s depicts the poignancy of the passion, the deep, deep love of Jesus, our long-suffering – all — as an extended Passacaglia. Not just a formal unifying structure, this recurring tune is laden with all the pathos necessary to depict our frail human condition and the urgency of the need for redemption. As the tune is passed through the instruments and the voices in nearly thirty iterations, Rist’s chorale tune is heard in the soaring voices of the sopranos, doubled by flute and horn. As the text describes the vigor with which Christ rescues our anguished souls, the music, too, becomes more active and urgent, yet all within the framework of the prevailing ground bass. In the end, Bach achieves astonishing scope of idea and musical transformation in one of the most well-known of all Bach’s chorale fantasias.

The corpus of the cantata moves the Christian from earnest, eagerness to follow in Jesus’s steps – listen for the pizzicato of the double bass as the soprano and alto tread in each other’s musical steps – to the redeeming ‘sprinkling’ of the blood of Christ depicted by the elegant flute solo with tenor soloist – to the ultimate offering of not just our sin, but also our whole heart as we, too, take up the cross to live the Gospel in the world. Listen for the wisdom of the baritone and the full, confident stride of the redeemed whose soul is stilled by faith the promise of sweet eternity.

Thank you Dr. Jarrett.

In two weeks, Dr. Jarrett, Dean Hill and I will travel to San Diego with members of the Marsh Chapel Choir where we will meet up with members of the Bach Collegium San Diego to bring the Bach Experience, now in its eighth season here at Marsh Chapel, to the American Academy of Religion annual meeting.  There we will present Cantata 77, Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben, “You shall love the Lord your God.”  That cantata, presented here at Marsh Chapel in February of 2013, is less dark but no less serious, treating the relationship between law and grace in conversation with the parable of the Good Samaritan. We invite your prayerful, and if so moved material, support of this expanding voice of the Bach Experience and Marsh Chapel.

The question addressed in Cantata 77 is how we are to live in light of the grace of God in us. The question for today’s cantata, Cantata 78, is what God’s grace does in us that we might live at all. The good news of Jesus Christ for us today, preached in the glorious music of Bach, is that the grace of God in us transforms sin, death, guilt, despair, and anguish to blessing so that we might say,

I will trust in Your goodness,
until I joyfully see
You, Lord Jesus, after the battle
in sweet eternity.

Listen. Learn. Love. The Bach Experience for you. Amen.

Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+, University Chaplain for Community Life & Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.


[1] Smith, Christian; Lundquist Denton, Melina. Soul Searching : The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford University Press, 2005.

[2] H. Richard Niebuhr. The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1959: 193.

The Marsh Spirit

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

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Matthew 5:1-12

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My November Guest

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,

Thinks these dark days of autumn rain

Are beautiful as days can be;

She loves the bare, the withered tree;

She walked the sodden pasture lane…

…Not yesterday I learned to know

The love of bare November days

Before the coming of the snow,

But it were vain to tell her so,

And they are better for her praise.

Robert Frost

For All the Saints

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of our sin, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following after the commandments of God, draw near in faith, and take this holy sacrament to your comfort.

Yours is a living spirit of recollection.  Of memory, history, remembrance, recollection.

September:  Inquiry.  October:  Hymnody.  November:  Recollection.

Revelation

A Multitude that no one could count

Out of ordeal to springs of living water.

Not everything that is meaningful is measurable.

How do you measure a full heart?

How do you weigh a soul?

Prayer.  Faith.  Hope. Love.

1 John

Children of God

Dislocation and grace.  Disappointment and freedom. Departure and love.

Psalms

The Lord redeems.

Redemption.  An economic and a spiritual meaning.

To redeem: to buy back.  To get back.  To pay off.  To set free by paying a ransom.  E Baptist, The Have Has Not Been Told.  To set free.  To make amends.  To make worthwhile.

Debt and regret.

Be careful, Commonwealth about funding common life on the basis and backs of debt and regret.

In the summer we live near a grand institution devoted to gaming.   Young eyes, poor homes, older people.  Those at the dawn, twilight, and shadows of life.

Is this the best we can do?

Matthew

The saints:  poor in spirit, mourn, meek, hungry, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, persecuted.

Someone.  Silent recollection.  Organ moment.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.  Presence. Longevity. Heart.  Every opening.  Physically seen by half the population.  Silber Way:  Is there any other?  Photonics:  How should I know?

Robert Frost

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets. Edward Thomas (d. 1917, France) on North of Boston:  ‘This is one of the most revolutionary books of modern times, but one of the quietest and least aggressive.  It speaks, and it is poetry.”  They had one year of friendship, to walk the sodden pasture lanes of England.

Walked, not walks (in the poem)

Truth instinctively apprehended not intellectually grasped.

Recollection.

Yes, thanksgiving, and yes, real presence, but also remembrance.

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.