Archive for February, 2015

Hope in the Wilderness

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015

Click here to listen to the full service

Mark 1:9-15

Click here to listen to the sermon only

A Prayer for Boston from the Reverend James Martin, Jesuit priest, author, and editor: Almighty God, who made the green grass on the Fenway, the blue waters of Dorchester Bay and the tan sands on the Cape, we have a simple prayer: Enough with the snow already. Whatever mysterious point you’re making about endurance, or patience or your own awesome power, we get it: we’ve endured, we’re plenty patient and we get that you can do the snow thing. And we know that you know the old joke (since you know everything) about how if the Pilgrims landed in Florida first this part of the country would never have been settled, ha ha, but we love it here. We love the spring, especially on Boston Common. We love the Fall, especially in the suburbs. And we love the summer, especially on Cape Cod, on Cape Anne and on the South Shore. We love all those beautiful parts of your world. But we’ve had it with the snow. I mean, have you looked out my window? So we’d like to ask you to stop sending us the snow. And, just to be clear, when we say snow we also mean freezing rain, sleet, black ice, any kind of flurries and that new creation of yours thundersnow, We promise we’ll be good during Lent, we’ll be kind to one another, and won’t ask for another thing, at least until the Red Sox start to play. Amen.

You and I may have offered some variation of that prayer to God in the last month, especially last week when the weather prohibited us from meeting here in person.  Last Sunday I worshipped from my home office, on the second floor of my house that overlooks the street.  Wind wailing, snow blowing, I wrapped my blanket a little more tightly around me as I heard the steam heat rattling through the radiator, in sync with the wind whipping the windows in front of me.  Across the street a neighbor opened her window and slowly stretched out a broom to knock down heavy and thick icicles from the gutters, fearful of the prolonged strain on the house’s structure.  Perhaps for many of you, the roads to 735 Commonwealth Avenue were impassable, the routine journey to worship in the presence of a known community too risky to attempt.  Perhaps you too, sat, listened, and worshipped from your armchair, the melodic voices of the choir competing with the shrill wind and thundering snow plows.  Perhaps you also found comfort in the familiar voices, hymns, and word despite the white wilderness engulfing you.

In Boston this winter we have endured our own kind of wilderness.  Pummeled with storm after storm, snow rising to unbelievable heights, commuting whether by foot, car, bike or public transit nearly impossible, Bostonians somehow manage to continue onward day after day, week after week.  Two weeks ago on a Monday morning, my partner and I headed to the driveway yet again to shovel.  I started to pile the snow on the already higher than me snow piles on either side of the driveway, and I suddenly stopped, exacerbated and said, “This isn’t going to work.  There’s just no more room.”  Finally I decided to take the snow, one shovel load at a time, and carry it across the street to a smaller snowbank.  It took us double the time, but slow and steady was the only way to go at this point.  Here in Boston, we’ve needed to be a little more creative, a little more patient, a little more flexible, and a little more forgiving in order to brave these long winter days and nights.  We chip, chip, chip away at the icy block at the end of the driveway strongly built by the snow plow because we know we will make it out of the white wilderness soon.  Our hope rests in the promise of new life, warmth, sunshine, and green grass.  Our hope rests in the promise of spring.  You and I in Boston are insiders to this journey, and through a shared wilderness to find a common hope, we as Bostonians make the long trek together.

As outsiders in Mark’s gospel today, we see from beyond the moment at hand.  We are provided a glimpse into a very personal account of Jesus’ baptism – a voice from heaven projecting, the Spirit descending, and Jesus emerging.  Mother, son, and Spirit – the Trinity comes together for one snapshot moment breaking through the daily life on the river banks of the Jordan as if the world stood still for one quiet, perfect moment.  Jesus saw the heavens torn open; Jesus felt the Spirit fall down upon him; and Jesus heard his mother’s voice from above.  Nowhere does Mark say others witnessed Jesus’ personal encounters with the spirit and God.  Instead, Jesus’ baptismal experience was uniquely his own, and whatever happened in the brief moment between Jesus and the Spirit following his baptism, we don’t know except to simply say, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”

Mark’s wilderness is described in one short sentence in which an almost comical scene is set up.  Jesus is with Satan, the wild beasts, and angels.  It’s as if the red horned devil is sitting on his left shoulder and the white haloed angel on his right, both tugging at the human desires and impulses tucked deeply within the heart.  The devil whispers maliciously in Jesus’ ear, “ Nothing you can do will make a difference; you have a good life with a good family, so why would you risk that security and stability; nobody will listen to you; be comfortable and let someone else take this on.”  The angel letting out a long sigh simply repeats the familiar words to Jesus, “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Comical images aside, something resonates deeply within us when we think of being God’s beloved with whom she is well pleased.  These words echo the Genesis account of being created in God’s own image and the psalmist’s poetic prayer, who knew himself to be “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God.  Each of us yearns for God’s love, desires to feel valued, and desperately seeks hope, the hope only found in God.

As outsiders, we don’t know the rainy wilderness through which the prophet Noah journeyed to dry land.  Like Jesus, he spent forty days away from the familiar. In a wilderness of water and rain, claustrophobia and confusion, darkness and despair Noah chose to put his trust in God despite the ridicule from those who scoffed at his building a gigantic arc. Noah clung to hope and endured the wilderness that eventually ended with a new promise of peace from God symbolized by the vibrant rainbow that stretched from generation to generation for all of humankind, all animals, and all plant life over the entire earth.  The covenant initiated by God in Genesis reached far and wide to the re-establishment of that same covenant through Jesus Christ from wilderness to wilderness, from Genesis to Gospel, from Noah to Jesus, from prophet to good news incarnate, faithful to constant, hopeful to hope filled, and pioneer to leader.

Sarah Kate Ellis, a modern day pioneer and President of GLAAD with two A’s, a queer rights organization, recently asked, “Where are the hearts and minds of Americans?”  Her question stemmed from the recent marriage equality victories in opposition to the increasing hostility towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender folk, especially by prominent political and religious figures.  Ellis’ hope is that marriage is looked at as “the benchmark and not just the finish line,” since laws, while good and necessary, don’t change attitudes or biases.  After several polls geared toward answering her question about Americans’ hearts and minds, the responses were troubling.  About a third of respondents said they would feel unsettled if their child’s physician or teacher identified as LGB or T, and they would also feel uncomfortable seeing same sex couples holding hands.  Almost half said they would be uncomfortable bringing a child to a same sex wedding.   Even more disheartening, a public Religion Research Institute survey from a little over a year ago found that over half of respondents claimed sex between two men or two women is morally wrong.  Understandably polls are an imperfect science for data collection, but looking beyond the flaws, it’s evident the hearts and minds of many Americans aren’t in sync with their queer sisters and brothers.

With more and more states declaring the unconstitutionality of banning lesbians and gays from marriage equality, it is no surprise a strong and harsh backlash is upon us.  Alabama recently rejoiced in the most recent triumph of justice in which the Supreme Court chose not to block a ruling by a federal judge who recently declared the Alabama’s marriage restrictions as unconstitutional.  Sadly, not all those in Alabama joined in the celebration.  In angry defiance, Chief Justice Roy Moore of the State Supreme Court chose to defy federal law by commanding authorities to block the marriages, determined to resist marriage equality for all of Alabama’s citizens and encourage discrimination.  His actions have caused confusion and chaos for authorities and those seeking marriage, essentially dividing the state between those in favor and those against.  In response, Nicholas Kristoff in his New York Times opinion column recently asked “Do Judge Moore and other conservative Christians think that when God made gays and lesbians fall achingly in love with each other, God screwed up?”

How vast is the wilderness, how long, how wide, how deep that causes us to wonder if God screwed up, made a mistake, or regrets a part of her creation.  Even though you and I may know that we are God’s beloved, let us not forget the deeply personal journeys of many, where the glimmer of hope is too often dimmed by the heavy burdens of oppression and discrimination, by injustice and hate, by ex-communication and abandonment. Communal or personal the wildernesses seem unending and blinding, weary individuals pushing onward with silent cries of “help” meant for any who might listen or be willing to hear.  

Asking for help is a needed practice.  It’s too often portrayed as giving in or showing weakness.  In a society where we are taught to be strong and independent, help isn’t a word that comes naturally to us.  Yet, everyone needs help sometimes, like a woman who emailed me last week.  In one of her classes, a quiz was given in order to discover what implicit biases each person might have.  Pleased, she didn’t discover too much bias towards several groups of people, but results relating to one group in particular concerned her.  The bias she held towards LGBT folk worried her since she firmly believes in being full of Christ’s love and expressing that love to all people equally.  In an attempt to confront her biases and learn more about a community in which she hasn’t been immersed or knows very little, she reached out to me for help.  Her heartfelt honesty in writing and pushing the send button for this email combined with her self-reflective humility brought about a renewed and needed hope deep inside of me.  If one person could swiftly attempt to change biases in order to love more truly as God loves, who’s to say we all can’t take the time and energy for probing self-reflection as well.

Lent is meant to be a time for self-reflection and humility.  With Ash Wednesday behind us, our Lenten journey has begun, as we follow Jesus into the wilderness, fight temptation, listen for God’s quiet voice, remember we are beloved, and seek hope.  We, too, fight temptations like Jesus – the red devil pulling at our human desires and the white angel tugging at the Spirit’s convictions placed on our hearts.  Lent is no different than any other season in this regard – temptations always abound, wildernesses come and go, and the snow falls every winter.  Yet Lent is unique in that it offers space carved out specifically for repentance, humility, and hope.   Lent is a time in which folks take on a practice or give up a bad habit in order to be more reflective, penitent, forgiving, and mindful of Jesus’ journey to the cross for our sake. In the still quiet place what will you find?  In the hushed silence to what is God calling you to do?

Looking back to Sarah Kate Ellis, the pioneer who is concerned with the hearts and minds of Americans, we recognize the hope she seeks, anticipates, and offers.  Though discouraging poll results, hurtful words thrown back and forth between religious leaders, hateful votes and bills approved by politicians, and continual violence, Ellis, encouraged by the progress the country has made, has a vision for what more good awaits.  What is her solution to changing the poll results and reaching hearts and minds other than waiting, through the passing of time? She wants to see more from the people who are wholly comfortable with gays to be more open about it, and in her words, to be more “evangelical” about it. Share the good news with others; be more open about the truth; and be the hope that marginalized communities so desperately need. It is interesting and noteworthy that Ellis uses the term “evangelical” – a word with Christian roots, that is associated with zeal and passion in proclaiming the good news of the gospel and the hope that’s found there.

In true evangelical fashion Jesus emerged from the wilderness, proclaiming good news: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Mark’s gospel offers no transition from the wilderness to the proclamation showing an urgency to Jesus’ ministry.  From quiet solitude to boisterous community, Jesus hit the ground running.  Triumphantly he fled the wilderness, escaping the temptations and loneliness to live out the hope he knew to be true inside of himself.  From personal to public Jesus took what he experienced at his baptism to enter the wilderness with humility and vulnerability and finally emerged to proclaim good news, offer renewed hope, and challenge the broken and destructive cycles around him.

While we can’t enter Jesus’ own personal wilderness, this Lenten season is a time to reflect on what wildernesses are around us through which we are wandering as insiders, those wildernesses that to us are deeply personal.  We are reminded of our mortality, sinfulness, and humanity as we hear once again that we are dust and will return to dust.  Symbolizing repentance on Ash Wednesday, the ashes stay with us through the day on our foreheads, a public display of the personal conviction.  These ashes stay with us the forty days of Lent – not visibly for all to see, but instead they are marked on our hearts.  The Lenten journey is only what we make of it if embraced as a time of self reflection, humility, and penitence.  The choice is ours whether to set aside quiet solitude during these next forty days.  In the still quiet place what will you find?  When the heart is opened to God, to what will you be called to do?

The temptation for all of us is to ignore the call to serve, to stand, to speak out, to challenge, to step out of our boundaries, and to help those in need.  The temptation is to believe God screwed up.  The temptation is to leave others stranded in the wilderness especially those with which we are outsiders, not offering a hand or the time to better understand another’s struggles.  The temptation is to keep our biases tucked away without working to let them go.  The temptation is to not ask for help or hear the cries from others.  The temptation is to lose hope or deny others hope.  The temptation is to believe the lies that we are not beloved or to tell those lies to others with whom God is so very well pleased.  The temptation is to temper the gospel, squash the good news, and put out the fires of the evangelical pioneers.

The wilderness is a place where we can take stock of our hearts and minds, choosing either to seek hope or despair.  Whether to find solace in indifference or determination.  Deciding to be a little more creative for the good of all people or only a few.  Allowing ourselves to be flexible in our thinking or rigid in our narrow beliefs.  Asking for help, offering help, or denying help.  Are you the one lending a hand, or a shovel, or a snowblower for the neighbor in need this winter?  Are you reaching out and using your voice for those marginalized, those wandering in the desert?  The wilderness has different meanings for different people yet we are all seeking the same hope in God fulfilled by Christ.

When faced with a choice, Jesus chose to accept the calling from God to offer his life to others and God in the service of those around him.  May we be mindful of his journey to the cross this Lenten season and may we seek hope in the wilderness.  As God’s beloved may we proclaim the hope of Christ through the wilderness.  May our prayer be this Lenten season, to align our hearts and minds to that of God’s loving will in the service of others.  Amen.

-Reverend Liz Douglass, Chapel Associate for LGBTQ & UCC Ministry

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High Peaks

Sunday, February 15th, 2015

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Mark 9:2-9

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Whence Saving Insight?

When and how does a moment of insight come?  What are the steps up along the mountain trails, the high peaks of life that give a moment of clarity that can save us?

Peter has just heard our Lord’s ageless command:  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow.”  Then Peter is led, step by step, up a high mountain, where something…unearthly…occurs.  He sees what cannot be seen.  And, from this mountain view, for a moment, there is insight and there is clarity.

When and how does such a moment arrive, a moment of clarity that can save us from an anger that leads to murder, or a heartache that leads to suicide, or a despair over a gun-totting nation drenched in violence, or a chagrin about a country that ever more closely approximates Fosdick’s verse, “rich in things and poor in soul”?

Today’s Gospel offers us a mountain view, clarity and insight, found step by step along the rocky trail of life, that can lift us up above sin and death and the threat of meaninglessness.  It’s five step program was inspired by Josiah Royce’s little Boston book of 1912, The Sources of Religious Insight.

In earshot of insight on the mountain of transfiguration…Walk along with me, if you will, for just a few minutes…up the mountain path we go…and take, Come Sunday, a divergent road.  Insight is born in worship.

Insight Through the Thicket of Personal Need

One step toward insight lies through the thicket of personal need.  Careful, step carefully here.  Here you recognize your mortality.  “It is a great life, but few of us get out alive.”  We truly do not know the hurts and needs others face.  Every heart has secret sorrows.  Here you admit that the acts of desperation in news reports come from conditions you also know.  Fear, anger, jealousy, hatred, dread.  Here—step lightly—you see the shadow, and your shadow in the greater shadow.  One called this “the feeling of absolute dependence”.  Here we are confessional.  We say, “Hello.  My name is John Smith and I am an alchoholic.”  We say, “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.”  We say, “There but for the grace of God, go I.

The first time I was left alone with our first child, to give her mother a night out.  She had been the most pleasant of children, happy and bright, sleeping through the night.  She hardly cried.  But that hot August night, at the very moment the door closed and the car drove off, she began to wail.  Not to whimper or weep, but to wail and shriek and scream.  Five, twenty five, fifty minutes.  I was really shaken, terrified, angry and frustrated,  at my wit’s end, and probably at the edge of some irrational behavior.  Over the din of the howling daughter, I heard the doorbell.  In came our church’s lay leader, Bernice Danks, a veteran nurse and teacher of nurses at Cornell who wordlessly took the child and somehow the howling ceased.  “Oh, I like to make a few house visits a week.  It’s a little routine of mine…You know I tell my nursing students that we call the things that are most important, ‘routine’…and I came by the parsonage and for some reason I decided to stop.  I hope you don’t mind the intrusion…What a pleasant baby she is!”

Maybe in this winter of our snowy discontent, we who are more ambulatory, as we skitter through the snow, will realize how my friend Tim in a wheelchair confronts the drifts, and especially the iced, choked, formidable street corners.  Insight comes through an experience of personal need.

When we are helpless, insight can come.

Wesley is still with us to ask, “will you visit from house to house?”  Insight sees inside the closed door of personal need, and measures the distance between public appearance and private reality.  We recognize personal need with every Sunday, at an Marsh Chapel with gusto, in confession and kyrie, cry for forgiveness.

Insight Over the River of Others’ Hurts

A second step toward insight lies over the river of another’s hurt.  Here, we’ll jump the river at the portage path, where we bear each other’s burdens like canoes carried in tandem.  A moment of clarity can come when you truly see another’s plight, and feel it in your heart.  Some insight comes from serving others, some from sensing others’ hurt.  It is really a matter of understanding power, this insight about others.   Think of the Prince and the Pauper, or of Lazarus and Dives.  Insight happens in the chorus of the common life, when we sing out, “so that’s what is like to be you…”

The social gospel tradition, theological and political,(Douglass, Anthony, Gladden, Rauschenbusch and others) may be criticized as a “johnny one note” presentation.  But if you have to choose just one note to play, this is one to pick.  Jesus means freedom.  Real religion is never very far from justice.  To learn about the nature of power, and the effects of power, we listen to the powerless.

Men, listen to the women about whom you care, as they describe being pulled over on the highway in a winter night.  With red lights flashing…sirens wailing…car door thudding…a tall male figure in uniform and wide brimmed hat…a revolver in the belt… “May I see your license please?”…Men, listen to women.

Majority, listen to the minority describe the feeling of being stopped on the front porch step, at night, after a long day of menial work, and questioned, with Ferguson and Staten Island and other scenes in memory. Do you remember the New York tragedy of some years ago?  With the lights flashing and the uniforms and hats and, when you reach for your wallet some one yells.”Gun!”.  41 bullets later a tragedy—unintended to be sure—has occurred.  Not a gun but a wallet.  Such a tragedy for all.  But maybe such tragedy can begin to help all to gain insight, to begin to feel what others feel.  Majority, listen to minorities.

Insight comes through the life long common song that recognizes another’s hurt.

In February of the year 2015, perhaps, Elijah, a chair left open for him guarding a shoveled parking spot in south Boston, the spirit of Elijah that is, broods over the face of New England snow fields.   The sore muscles of a shoveling people, the tired torsos of a commuting community, the undaunted willingness still to help a neighbor, the gritty determination to get through the blizzard, the awareness of needs for investment in the communal forms of transport, the gladness of children and the extra time of adults, the same spirit visited.   You may not daily see Elijah.  But his spirit is present, in the stamina, perseverance and goodness of a good, prayerful, New England people.  Morning in reading.  Mealtime in prayer.  Evening in quiet.  Sunday in worship.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday as we sing hymns together, in four part harmony, to recognize that we are all in this together, especially on a Snow Day.

Insight Scaling the Cliffs of Reason

A third step toward insight lies over the cliff of reason.  “Come let us reason together” says the Psalmist.  God has entrusted us with freedom, and with minds to think through our use of freedom.  While reason has its limits, it is reason, finally, that will help us learn the arts of disagreement—at home, at work, in church, in the community.  We say, “try to be reasonable”.  And reason often prevails.  If you ever doubt the power of reason to bring insight, remember the words of the Psalmist, and the voices of great minds through the ages.  Josiah Royce’s Sources of Religious Insight, is itself a gem of such reasoned discourse.  Come let us reason together…

Now I submit to you that this meaning of the word reason is perfectly familiar to all of you.  Reason, from this point of view, is the power to see widely and steadily and connectedly.  Its true opponent is not intuition, but whatever makes us narrow in outlook, and consequently prey to our own caprices.  The unreasonable person is the person who can see but one thing at a time, when he ought to see two or many things together; who can grasp but one idea, when a synthesis of ideas is required.  The reasonable man is capable of synopsis, of viewing both or many sides of a question, of comparing various motives, of taking interest in a totality rather than in a scattered multiplicity. (87).

It takes something like this capacity to reason together to develop a healthy marriage.  On this snowbound weekend two beautiful couples, one yesterday and one this afternoon, take their vows right here in the nave of the chapel.  One couple met in the undergraduate BU class of 2006.  The other are post-docs, one from England and one from France.  (Welcome to Boston!) For better, for worse…To love and to cherish.  Well, to find a way to reason together.

Our BU assistant vice president of the Office of Marketing and Communications and executive editor of BU Today, Art Jahnke, kindly asked about the service and sermon this morning.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight, this moment of clarity, every Sunday through a sermon, a word (we hope) fitly spoken, as in, right now.

Insight Across the Gorge of the Will

A fourth step toward insight lies across the great gorge of the will.  Look before you leap.  We are here ever closer to the mountaintop.  Real insight comes in a moment of decision.  Some say we learn to choose.  But our experience is that we learn by choosing.  Viktor Frankl spent his whole life developing the “logotherapy” around this one conviction:  we grow by deciding.  Choose.  You cannot lose, in the fullest sense, and in the long run.  Choose.  Either way, you have learned, you will grow, you have changed, you will improve, you have developed.  Choose.

Faith is not a matter of emotion or feeling or soul or heart or intellect only.  First, faith is a decision.  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow.”

As Kierkegaard put it, “either\or”… Either God or not.  Decide.  Either you see God in Christ or not.  Decide.  Either Jesus Christ has a claim on your life or not.  Decide.  Either every day is a chance for love or not.  Decide.  Either the way of love means particular consequent acts regarding your time, your money, your body, your community…or not.  Decide.

Faith is not as much thrill as it is will.

You share with me a desire to honor those who have chosen to help us today.  Our choir and musicians, somehow present and accounted for.  Our support staff, Tim who shoveled out the plaza, and David who cleaned and warmed the sanctuary, and both who have come to worship! The dedicated choices over decades by Boston University, to support this broadcast, and WBUR to carry this broadcast, and our engineer Eddie to manage the broadcast, and our ushers in the back, our readers in the front, and all manner of friends in between.  Thank you.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday, in a moment of invitation—to devotion, to discipline, to dedication.

Insight Upon the Summit of Loyalty

A fifth step toward insight brings us to the summit.  There.  Take a breath.  Up here, the air is rarified.  Up here, you may have a moment of clarity.  For the fifth step toward insight brings us to the altar of loyalty. We are in the thin air that requires a use of archaic words—loyalty, duty, chivalry.  Beware though the sense that loyalty is a matter of sullen obedience.  On the contrary!  Loyalty is the red flame lit in the heart’s chancel, lit with the admixture of personal need and social concern, illumined by the reason and ignited by the will.  Loyalty combines the conservative concern for morality with the liberal hunger for justice.  Loyalty is life, but life with a purpose.Insight, real clarity, can come with a brush up with loyalty.  Tell me what you give to, and I will tell you who you are.  Tell me what you sacrifice for, and I will tell you who you are.  Tell me what altar you face, and I will tell you who you are. Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres

And real loyalty is magnanimous.  Real loyalty is bighearted enough to honor an opponent’s loyalty.  At the summit, there can be a reverent respect for another’s loyalty, truly lived, even when it clashes with our own.  Maybe especially then.  US Grant felt this at Appomatox as he took the sword from RE Lee.  It is chivalry, this honoring of loyal opposition.  We were once known for this kind of chivalry, a reverent respect for divergent loyalties, as long as they did not eclipse the one great loyalty.  I overheard this kind of chivalry from a local football player this week, a burly formerly bearded lineman, who said, “They played better than we did.”

Such a memory could help our political conversations, reminding us that at depth loyalties converge out of difference.  Surface difference can occlude deeper agreements.  Loyalty has a magnanimous depth that honors others’ divergent loyalties.

One of the strangest turns in the New Testament is found in 1 Corinthians 15.  After Paul has reached the very summit of our faith, and sings of the resurrection in such heavenly tones, then, immediately, he turns to—do you remember?—the collection!  A matter of loyalty.

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday, through the presentation of gifts, an expression of loyalty, at the altar of grace and freedom and love.

High Peaks

Several years ago, we worshipped in the tiniest church in our area.  A little Adirondack chapel, at the end of the trail, high up in the northern mountains.  Beyond Owl’s Head, and Chasm Falls and Wolf Pond, there is the summit of Mountainview, with its chapel and pump organ and wooden pews and simple pulpit, and humble service, still though a service like this one or any — a chance for saving insight as we recognize personal need, others’ hurts, the power of reason, the importance of will, the force of loyalty—in the prayer of confession, the music of community, the preaching of the Word, the invitation to decision, and the loyal offering of gifts.

This Lent:  Let insight abound on the curvaceous slopes of personal need!  Let insight abound on the majestic mountains of social holiness!  Let insight abound on the prodigious cliffs of reason and will!  Let insight abound on the purple mountain summit of loyalty—from every mountainview, let insight abound!  So that, to paraphrase the spiritual, we might sing, insight at last, insight at last, thank God Almighty, we have saving insight at last!

Somehow we were deluded to think that worship is optional.  Many things are optional.  For those, however, who desire to see life as human and keep life human, worship is essential, essential, essential to insight, essential to the insight that keeps life human.  How can we be human without seeing our own frailty, without knowing another’s pain, without learning to reason together, without the courage to decide, without the love of loyalty?  So let us improve in Lent.

Let us worship God together.  As you are doing, do so more and more.

Let us make it our earnest desire to worship God each Lord’s Day.

Let us make preparation for our ordered worship in daily prayer and reading.

Let us sing lustily, as Wesley taught, and pray with energy, and listen with care.

Let us do as OW Holmes regularly did with every sermon, ill or well though the sermon was:  “I applied it to myself”.

Let us shake off our timidity and seize every opportunity to include others, friend and neighbor and relative in worship.

Let us savor the memory of Sunday all week long—humming familiar verses, reciting familiar phrases, chewing on various themes.

Let us expect and experience of love, of presence, of God.

Let us enter silence with grace and song with freedom.

Let us prepare to worship, Lent 2015.

To Quicken the Conscience by the Holiness of God

To Illumine the Imagination by the Beauty of God

To Open the Heart to the Love of God

To Devote the Will to the Purposes of God

Words at the Kyrie Eleison

Confession in Snow:  2/15/15

Our Kyrie Eleison, and prayer of confession, are meant to open us to transformed, changed perspectives, to greet this as a day of new beginnings, to help us to think in a different way.  For example:  what if the Bible had been written in snowy New England rather than in the sunny Near East?

Imagine…

And God separated the snow banks from the snow banks, those from under the firmament, from those over the firmament, and God called the firmament heaven.  And there was evening and morning, a second day.

And Abraham took his huskies to drink by the frozen lake, and there met Rebecca, who came to break the ice and draw water.  And he said, “Pray, put down your pick ax and let me drink from the icy flow”.

And Pharaoh’s daughter saw a sled come by downhill, in which there was wrapped in a snowsuit, a little boy, named Moses.  Pharaoh’s daughter took him home, and warmed him by the fire.

After the children of Israel had skated across the frozen Blue Sea,  and Pharaoh’s army was in close pursuit, the Lord God sent a heat wave that melted the ice and Pharaoh, and his chariots and his army plunged down into the briny deep.

By the icicles of Babylon we sat down and wept as our tormentors said to us, sing to us one of the songs of Zion.

Save me O God!  For the avalanche has cascaded upon me…I have fallen into deep drifts and the snow sweeps over me.

Many snow drifts cannot bury love, neither can blizzards smother it.

Let Justice roll down like an avalanche, and righteousness as an unending blizzard.

I baptize you with snow, but One is coming who will baptize you with fire

Except a man be born of snow and the spirit, he will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

God sends his snow upon the just and the unjust alike

The wise man built his house upon the rock.  The snow fell, and the blizzard came and the lake effect wind blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it was built upon the rock.

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

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The Bach Experience

Sunday, February 8th, 2015

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Mark 1: 29-39

Psalm 147: 1-11

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Reverend Hill

There come wintery episodes in the course of a snow battered lifetime that place us deep in the shadows.   If the shadow is dark enough, we may not feel able to move forward, for our foresight and insight and eyesight are so limited.  We may become frozen, snowed in.

You may have known this condition—of confusion or disorientation or ennui or acedia.  You may know it still.  The death of a loved one can bring such a feeling.  The loss of a position or job can bring such a feeling.  The recognition of a major life mistake can bring such a feeling.  The recollection of a past loss can bring such a feeling.  The disappearance of a once radiant affection, or love, for a person or a cause or an institution can bring such a feeling.  The senselessness of violence inflicted on the innocent can bring such a feeling.

Over the years I have grown frustrated by my own mother tongue in various ways.  English places such a fence between thought and feeling, when real thought is almost always deeply felt, and real feeling is almost always keenly thought.  We need another word like thoughtfeeling or feltthought.  When C Wesley sang ‘unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, learning and holiness combined, and truth and love let us all see’ he described something so bone marrow close to my own life, happiness, hope, ministry, faith.  And he also I think was wrestling with the limits of our beautiful language.  Anyway, you by nature and discipline live the thoughtfeeling gospel, and for that I am lastingly thankful.

Be it then thought or feeling or thoughtfeeling, there do come episodes, all in a lifetime, that place us, if not in the dark, at least well into the shadows.  You may have known all about this at one time.  You may know it still.

Come Sunday, some snippet of song, or verse, or preachment, or prayer, or, especially today a line from the Cantata, it may be, will touch you as you meander about in the dim shadow twilight.  Hold onto that snippet.  Follow its contours along the cave of darkness in which you now move.  Let the snippet—song, verse, sermon, prayer, line—let it guide you along.  So you may be able to murmur: ‘I can do this…I can make my way…I can find a handhold or foothold…I can hope and even trust that the Lord heals the brokenhearted…I can make it for now, at least for now, for the time being.’   It is the power and role of beauty, verbal or musical or liturgical or communal, to restore us to our rightful mind, our right thoughtfeeling.

Today the epistle, the Gospel and the psalm lifts a hymn of faith, a song of courage in the face of adversity.   It is this lift for living which beauty, especially the beauty of holiness, and particularly, this morning, the beauty of holy music is meant to provide.  Here we want to underscore Truth, for sure, and Goodness, for sure.  But we don’t want to leave behind beauty.  Beauty can heal.  In our work with demons.  In our quiet and contemplation.  Beauty, in the case of this morning, the beauty of Bach, often has the power to shake us loose, to set us free.

‘How happy I am, that my precious one is the A and O, the beginning and the end; He will claim me as his prize and take me to Paradise, for which I clap my hands. Amen! Amen! Come, you lovely crown of joy, do not delay, I await you with longing.’

Dr Jarrett, how shall we listen, both on the radio and in person, most fully to be immersed in today’s Bach experience?

Dr. Jarrett

BWV 1 was written for Sunday, March 1725. By it’s date, it concludes Bach’s Second Yearly Cycle (Jahrgang) of cantatas written for liturgical purposes in Leipzig. Following the pattern of many from that second cycle, the piece is named for and draws inspiration from a great chorale tune, in this instance, one by Philip Nicolai ‘Wie schön leuchtet’ — we Methodist sing this chorale as #247 ‘O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright’. The tune is featured prominently in long high notes in the soprano throughout the first movement in one of Bach’s most opulent Chorale Fantasias. The final chorale is the same tune as well.

Liturgically and theologically, March 25, 1725 presented Bach and the clergy with a rarity: the movable feast, Palm Sunday, coincided with a fixed feast, the Annunciation of Mary. Officially, BWV 1 is listed as for the Annunciation of Mary, though there is good ‘King’ language through the piece. In general, the cantata’s text and music celebrate Christ’s coming both as King entering Jerusalem, and with ‘eastern opulence’ of the anticipated birth of the King. Pairs of violins, English horns, and French horn contribute to this opulence and richness of texture in a cantata so highly regarded that the first publishers of Bach’s collected works listed this as BWV 1 in the initial volume of the Bach-Gesellschaft.

It is unbridled in joy and praise, heard in hearty dance rhythms befitting the celebration of the coming and the entrance of the King….

‘How happy I am, that my precious one is the A and O, the beginning and the end; He will claim me as his prize and take me to Paradise, for which I clap my hands. Amen! Amen! Come, you lovely crown of joy, do not delay, I await you with longing.’

Reverend Hill

Given the wintery snares, cold air illness, icy night terrors, and snow bound disease, noonday destruction, evil, scourge, wild beasts of this very day, it could be that a sober reading of our lessons, particularly our psalm, one of the great trusting hymns of a faithful heart, will sustain us this morning.  Beauty can heal.

Our psalmist, our singer is a person of simple faith.  We could make many complaints about this hymn and its singer.  He has a dangerously simple view of evil, especially for the complexity of a post-modern world.  He has a way of implying that trust, or belief, are rewarded with safety, a notion that Jesus in Luke 13 scornfully dismisses, and we know to be untrue.  He has an appalling lack of interest in the scores of others, other than you, who fall by the wayside.  He seems to celebrate a foreordained, foreknown providence that ill fits our sense of the openness of God to the future, and the open freedom God has given us for the future.  He makes dramatic and outlandish promises not about what might happen, but about what will be.  As a thinking theologian, this psalmist of psalm 147 fails.  He fails us in our need to rely on something sounder and truer than blind faith.  He seems to us to be whistling past the graveyard.

And yet… for those who have walked past a February graveyard or two, for those who have walked the valley of the shadow of death, for a world at war, for a world searching to match its ideals of peace with its realities of hatred, for you today if you are in trouble, and who are worried today about others and other graves and other yards, and who have seen the hidden traps, unforeseeable dangers, and steel jawed snares of life, there is something encouraging about this simple song:  “the Lord heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds.

Our writer is not a philosopher.  He is a musician, perhaps, but not a systematic thinker.  He has one interest:  getting by, getting through, getting out, and getting home.  So he does not worry about the small stuff.  In fact, I have a sense that the psalmist is a bit desperate.  His song is one for that point on the road when you just have to go ahead and risk and jump.  You have made your assessment, you have made your plan, you have made your study, then you have prayed.  Yet you see all the pestilence about you in homes and institutions and nations, so you wonder, is it worth the risk?  You are not sure.

This hymn of the heart is one you sing when you are not sure, but you are confident.  Not certain, but confident.  You can be confident without being certain.  In fact, a genuine honest confidence includes the confidence to admit you are not sure.  Faith means risk.  Isn’t that part of what we mean by faith?  Our writer is at that point, the point of decision.  Once you are there, you have to choose between walking forward and slinking away.

Our psalmist is speaking just here to our immediate need.  Fear not’  The Lord is not interested in ‘the strength of the horse or the speed of the runner’. Go about your discipleship:  pray, study, learn, make peace, love your neighbor, agree to disagree agreeably, every one be convinced in his own mind.

I remember a Day Care center where I used to see notes pinned to the coats and sweaters of daycare toddlers.   This psalm is a note pinned to the shirt of a loved one heading into danger.  When there is nothing else we can give our daughters and sons we want them to have faith.  Faith to go forward, bravely, without being sure of what they will find along the way.

‘How happy I am, that my precious one is the A and O, the beginning and the end; He will claim me as his prize and take me to Paradise, for which I clap my hands. Amen! Amen! Come, you lovely crown of joy, do not delay, I await you with longing.’

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

&

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music, Marsh Chapel

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

The Marsh Spirit

Sunday, February 1st, 2015

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Deuteronomy 18:15-20

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Mark 1:21-28

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One:  Black History Month

First.  Those listening from afar might want to know that Old Man Winter visited Boston this week.   Those of you in Paris, Buenos Aires, San Diego, Tokyo, Beijing, London, Charlotte, Buffalo, and Miami who have connected with the Marsh Spirit in liturgy, music and homily, and support us from afar, might want to know that we have had a blizzard here.  On Tuesday, in the thick of it, I walked up Commonwealth Avenue, grateful for the hard work of BU staff who kept roads and sidewalks and the Marsh Plaza clear.  I saw, but then thought I was mistaken, that our new coffee shop across from CAS appeared to be open.  It was!  Then I knew the truth of the wisdom saying that essential and emergency services in Boston include the police, the hospitals, the fire department—and Dunkin Donuts (☺).

Stretch your legs and walk Commonwealth Avenue,  wonder and wander through the commonwealth of the Gospel.   The Marsh Spirit awaits a faith amenable to culture and a culture amenable to faith.  Yours is a cosmopolitan, even secular spirit, one that envisions Christ transforming culture—not just Christ against or Christ above or Christ in or Christ across culture, but Christ who brings not just theological reformation but cultural revolution.  Christ the Extraordinary incarnate in the ordinary. There is a particular spirit of this place and community.  Secularity  is a feature of this spirit, which we probe today, as in other months, Inquiry, Hymnody, Recollection, Patience, Life.  And today, the Secular.  You honor both the lectionary of the canon and the lectionary of the culture.

It is in the ordinary, the extraordinary ordinary of early February, in the ordinary of Capernaum, the ordinary of the synagogue, the ordinary of teaching and learning—that of a sudden, it can be, there is amazement, and healing, and trust.  What is this—the Markan secret unfolds.  Capernaum—at the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee—of the gentiles, those coming to faith.  A powerful voice, a personal encounter, a perplexing adventure–Challenge and change—a costly discipleship.  Fame spreading now, but a fickle crowd and a fickle fate await—the crucified Christ. A maniac healed—apocalpytic encounter.  (Remember the 5 fingers of the Markan gospel).

Voices come in many tones.  Sandy F Ray.  Gardner Taylor.  James Forbes.  Edgar Evans Crawford.  Howard Thurman.  Sojourner Truth.  Harriet Tubman.  And some closer to us in time and space, some closer to home.  Nikki Giovanni gave us creation in January.  February is Black History Month.

Some deep winters ago later, Jan and I drove with a few others down to the Eastern shore of Maryland.  We went there to attend the funeral services for our friend, and Bishop, Violet Fisher’s father, William Henry Fisher, who at age 87 had died early on a Sunday morning, after he had gone over to his church to turn up the heat and ready the sanctuary for worship.  It was important for our congregation to be represented in bodily support of our Bishop, whom we love.  But it was more important, for Jan and for me, to be with a friend, at the time of leave-taking.  After all, all the other departures of life, with their laughter and tears and valedictions, foreshadow the final departure.  So the benediction closing our weekly hour of worship.

We traveled easily following our map and directions.   Because I had a sense that we could do even better than the given directions, I took some alternate routes on the Peninsula.  In fact, these alterations, mid-course corrections, did not make the trip down any shorter.  We were not altogether lost.  Certainly not disoriented enough to actually stop and ask directions.  Nothing of that sort.  Just an hour or two of further sightseeing.  Anyway, since we had already gone out of our way on the way down, I just followed the directions home.  Jan slept, and as the sun set, it fully dawned on me just how much our dear friend had left behind to be in ministry with us. Not all the stories of Black History Month are played out on a global stage The scene from Mark is an idealized one.  Yet, over time, the Voice still calls to command, and, over time, people of faith summon the courage to leave, to change, to turn.  To leave the south for the north.  To leave home for others.  To leave family for ministry.  To leave dad for the joy of service.  To leave the energetic black church for the earnest white church.  To leave the lengthy eclectic worship for formal, liturgical order.  To leave familiar foods and sounds and rhythms and sights for a colder clime.  To leave, to leave.  “Immediately they left their nets”.  How lightly we weigh others’ sacrifice.  It takes courage, a gift of faith, to turn and move, and itinerate.   It is isn’t only the globally known people who make a difference.  My colleague Phil Amerson reminded me this week of the line in Middlemarch:  Near the end of George Elliot’s novel Middlemarch, is a passage about Dorothea, a person who is not thought of as great.  It reads: “But the effect of her being, on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on un-historic acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.”  In ministry we remember to honor the hidden lives and remember the unvisited graves.

Two:  Presidents’ Day

Second.  Paul exhorts his feisty Corinthians to watch for what causes another to stumble.  ‘If it causes my brother to stumble, I shall not do it.’  He makes an even broader claim.  The point of life is not to know but to be known.   One is known by God in love, and that is the point, not to know but to be known.   We know a lot.  But when it comes to life, to the big things of life, to sin and death and the threat of meaninglessness, we have to go on faith not on sight, and if we think we know we do not know.   Our recollection of the guiding Presidents in deep winter Lincoln and Washington, who had to step out with faith, brings a dim reflection of the truth in holy, ancient writ.  Washington freezing at Valley Forge.  1777. Lincoln shot in the Ford theater. 1865.  One God from whom and one Lord through whom.  We are trying, every trying, to keep a sense of cultural humility, in and through the strains of history.  February is the month of the Presidents, as well as Black History Month.  These two may be distinguished without being set in opposition.  We honor those who served and so built our country.

As the 1991 Gulf War began, we were meeting on Sunday nights, moving from apartment to apartment, with a group of graduate students.  I remember very little about this fellowship, from more than 20 years ago, other than its convivial spirit, its population by forestry students—know as ‘stumpies’—and it production over time of several marriages.  It also produced the single most unusual love “poem” I have heard, which came in the aftermath of a summons to leave.  Keith met Amy in this group.  They were both stumpies and both competitive lumberjacks and both very bright and very attractive young people.  One night Keith was extolling the glories of ‘his girl’, to a few of us—her beauty, diligence, kindness, spirit.  She came from a large family farm near Cooperstown and he from a similar farm in Medina.  Keith offered his love poem, reminding us that they had met in the lumberjacking competition.  With eyes glazed over, voice low and loving, with heart pouding, to all the rest he added:  “and she is also a great lumberjack…and man can she chop!”

I had their wedding in Hartwick Seminary some years later.  I think of the two of them as two of the finest young people that the Empire State has produced.  Like the early church, I remember almost nothing of detail, expect the word, “chop”.  A pungent saying, like, “fishers of men”.  In those winter months of 1991, Keith bade farewell to us, as a member of the Air Reserve.  He was summoned and he summoned the courage to serve. I honor even revere his courage to turn, to change, to leeave.  You and I know that many others today, some from our own extended family, have also summoned that kind of courage.   In ministry, we recognize the crucial importance of face to face groups.

Three:  Groundhog Day

Third.  The Book of Deuteronomy, the second law, or the second rehearsal of the law contains very little that  has not already been written in the other Books of Moses.  Hence ‘deutero’.  At the heart of our reading there is embedded a firm conviction of the possibility of speaking and hearing.  Something can be said, and something can be heard.  We carry some seasoned doubt in our time about this.  There is after all so much said and so much to hear.  We are awash in endless, cacophonous information.  But here, as in the gospel of Mark, the ancient writer rings a bell, sings a song, tells a tale with confidence in the possibility and power of real speaking and realm hearing.  The reading ends with what we might rephrase as a clear warning not to go against your own conscience.  You trust the prophet whose words come true.  And your voice, day by day, can bring an intervening, prophetic word (Numbers 11: 29)  In ministry, we live to serve the living Word.

That afternoon of blizzard snow this week several waves of memory swept in.  We were raised in 200 inches of snow a year.  The day’s cascade and nevada brought alive the clear memory of the full liberty snow brought us, in those far off years and humble villages.   Snow brought a physical liberation to 11 year olds and others.   The freedom to hike and walk unencumbered and alone, in a cold wonderland.  The freedom, sled in hand, to go over to Library Hill, then up and down and up and down until the street lights came on.  The freedom to skate on the Swan Pond or elsewhere, to play hockey there, to glide and cut and shoot.  The freedom to build forts, tunnels, caves, hideouts in the mammoth drifts.  The freedom of play, fully alive on a Snow Day (someone should write a book about it), and partly available every winter day.  In 1966 we had something like 2 weeks off from school, in the blizzard of that year.   No one wanted to hunt you down in the bitter cold of January, so you were free, free to do what you wanted until you were frozen solid.   Then home to sit on top of the heat register and thaw out.  Groundhog Day is the best holiday of the year, and comes in the month of February.

That year spring did come, at long last, as it does most years.  Enjoy the winter.  Spring has its own rigors.  One May afternoon, with some early summer warmth and a garden about to go in, with school winding down and summer opening up, my Mother had me sit on the back stoop of our parsonage.   Spring brings change, following the freedoms of winter.

Now Bobby I want to tell you something.  Your sisters don’t know yet.  We have lived here in this house since before you really remember, and it has been a good place.  Most places are good, and most people are good, too, once they come to trust you.  That’s one thing you learn in life.  Most people are good people.

I paid as close attention as I could, given my desire to get over to the lot and play baseball.  It all seemed a little odd.

Anyway, son, I need to tell you something.   This will not sound like a good thing but it is a good thing, and believe me when I tell you it will be fine.  We are going to move.  We are going to leave this house in June.  We are moving to another town.

Now I was listening.  And now I heard words I did not fully understand.  Move.  New house.  Bishop.  Itinerant system.  Annual Conference.  And also I found I could not see very clearly.  Something was in my eyes.  My eyes were getting blurry and wet and red and I could not see too well.

But Bobby it will go fine.  I promise.  You will find new friends.  You will have a new school.  You will have your own room.  You will see.  When school starts in the fall, you will be excited to go to a big, new school.  And it will all go well.  I will be there.  Your dad and I will make sure it goes fine.  I promise.  I will need your help with your sisters and little brother.  I know you will help, won’t you?

And so it was.  The word came true, as Holy Scripture says the word of a real prophet does.  It all worked out fine.  Why some have trouble hearing the divine voice in soprano or alto tones I have never understood.  The prophet spoke and it came to pass.

We are in good hands.  So it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens.  We are in God’s hands.  So it behooves us to share one another’s sorrows.  We are in good hands.  So it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens.

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 seek justice and resist evil,

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.

-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.