Archive for March, 2015

Finding Our Way

Sunday, March 22nd, 2015

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John 12:20-33

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Preface

From Limestone, Maine, to Churubusco, New York, to the shores of the Upper Peninsula, Michigan, today sap is boiling.  Forty gallons of Maple sap for every gallon of syrup, boiled in the steamy hot house of March, with delicious doughnuts alongside.  The fire is stoked, steaming, warm, and beautiful.  We warm our hands this morning on that kind of fire, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified, in Scripture and Doctrine and Application.

Scripture

Jesus’ fate as you know has now been sealed, just before our Gospel reading.  Unfortunately many times our lectionary lessons can be hard to follow, because they are cut away from what precedes or follows.  Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, a few verses back.  This seals his doom.  In John, it is not the cleansing of the temple that puts Jesus on the cross.  That has been done 11 chapters ago, an age in biblical time.  No, what gets him in ultimate trouble is resurrection, his power, his love, his presence, and especially his voice that brings people from one location to another, in this case out of one religion and into another, out of the synagogue and into the church, out of tradition and into gospel, out of law and into grace, out of discipline and into love.   For Lazarus, this is good.  For Jesus, not so good.  Voice can get you into trouble still.

Then Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair.  Then Judas plots his downfall. Then Jesus rides the donkey.  Then Jesus calls the crowd, who saw what happened with Lazarus.  Then—notice—the Greeks come and ask for him (meaning, all the nations, meaning, all the unreligious, meaning the future of the planet).  Then Jesus prays for glorification, meaning crucifixion.  The cross is the turning point between past and future, death and life, miscommunication and understanding.  It is glory in John.  Even the ever so human quaking prayer of Jesus in the garden, ‘LET THIS CUP PASS FROM ME’ is gone in John.  What, shall I ask to be saved?  No, I have come for just this purpose, this HOUR (again, like glory, in John, HOUR is a code word for cross).

The Greeks, THE GREEKS precede the religious, like the harlots preceding the Pharisees in the other earlier Gospels.  “We would see Jesus” they say.  What happens is different.  They see, but more, they hear Him.  They hear a compelling voice.  They hear and heed a compelling voice, for which they have no other manner of description than to use words like heavenly and thunderous.   This is a highly charged, very meaningful passage, if very short, as R. Bultmann might have reminded us.  We are Greeks, ourselves, that is, not raised within Judaism, so our access to Jesus, and its depiction here, are crucial.

They, the Greeks, and we, also Gentiles, come to Jesus by way of the apostles, Philip and Andrew (not Peter and Andrew, Philip and Andrew—John has Peter on a pretty short leash all along).  That is, we come to life through a set of traditions, but the traditions themselves are not the life itself.   We have to translate the traditions into insights for effective living, if they are to allow access to life.

Then, the matter of what this closeness to Jesus means is considered.  And what is it?  It is not a heightened religious experience.  It is not a mystical reverie.  It is not an emotional cataclysm.   It is service.  One finds Him in service with and to Him.  One knows Him walking alongside him.  One gains access to him by loving Him and in Him loving others.  In His service there is freedom, even perfect freedom.  Service, step by step, and day by day, finally gives way to and leads to death, the rounding and finishing of life.  Have we together found our path, our shared ways of service?  Are we walking in the light?

With angel voices and thunder and a prophecy of being lifted up, the community of the beloved disciple sees, again, in retrospect, as we do each Holy Week and Easter, the paradox of victory in defeat, of life in death, of love conquering the ‘ruler of this world’.  The ruler of this world is not a reference to God the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The phrase is ARCHON TOU KOSMOU, the ruler of this world, the demigod who in gnostic thought mistakenly and haphazardly created the world.  Jesus casts out the archon, the ruler of this world, and so can be offered to and understood by Greeks tinged with a hint or more than hint of Gnosticism.  I guess you could interpret this passage without reference to Gnosticism, but just how would you do that?   The service of love renders insipid and impotent the ruler of this world and all his minions.  Service in love is eternal, eternal in the heavens.

(Puzzling, though, is the phrase, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again’.  What is this?  The second glory is the cross.  But the first?  Simply an assertion that the God of the future is also the God of the past?  I do not, all these years later, I do not quite understand it.)

At all events, in the community of the beloved disciple, people have found a way, much truth and new life.  A voice, heavenly and thunderous, has spoken to them, a voice given ‘for their sake’.   As last week, the judgment once reserved for the end of time or for the eternal realms, or for both, has come, is now.  The bottom line or cash value of resurrection is speech, the possibility of saying something that can be heard, of saying some saving that can ‘savingly’ be heard.  While not limited to preaching in the narrow, and certainly not limited to an ecclesiastical voice, still judgment and salvation, in the here and now, by this Gospel, and this chapter of this Gospel are a dire matter, a crucial matter of hearing and speaking.

Doctrine

It is then, as we move from Scripture to Doctrine, surely to speaking and preaching in the ministry of Jonathan Edwards to which we turn.  Each Lent from the Marsh pulpit we engage a Calvinist interlocutor, this year Edwards of Northampton Massachusetts, 1703-1758.

Jonathan Edwards preached the beauty of God, or God as ‘perfect beauty’.  In our time when the true and the good tend to outweigh the beautiful in preaching, this may be a healthy recollection.   He made full use of the psychology and science of his day, of Locke and Newton.  In our day when only sporadic connections between faith and science, preaching and Darwin and Einstein occur, this may be a fruitful reminder.   Edwards provided that rare combination, ‘an ability to reason metaphysically about human nature in subtle philosophical terms alongside a deep commitment to evangelism and church renewal (D. Brainard, ‘Princeton’, 294).   That is he could no more affirm philosophy without faith than he could countenance faith without philosophy.  Head and heart he distinguished from one another but did not oppose to one another.  I find this personally a welcome encouragement, along a trail that sometimes seems a bit lonely.  Jonathan Edwards, in concert with John Calvin, and to a full degree in concert with the great traditions of the church, understood the purpose of life to be found in seeking God’s glory.  So, a daily question would be, ‘Can I do this, or say this, or desire this to the glory of God?’  If I read him and his interpreters properly, though, Edwards did lean a little more fully toward the affections:  ‘feeling and sense make up the more profound level of human experience’ (here Edwards, W James, J Wesley, and S Kierkegaard, among others, agree).  We need most the beauty of holiness, that is, and ‘spiritual understanding consists primarily in a sense of the heart of that spiritual beauty’ (‘Princeton’, 113).  For our year long inquiry about spirit, we may take here from him the confidence that ‘ the Holy Spirit makes possible a new, sensible knowledge’ (ibid, 69).  Its consequence, a stout reminder to us:  ‘love is benevolence or good will to others…the disposition which one has who desires and delights in the good of another’.  I find that a fair summary of Christianity.  To sum up, in the words of John Smith, ‘God wants out of the depths of his love to have in the creation a being capable of appreciating the beauty, the ‘excellency’ and the splendor of the divine Gloria as it appears in the creation.” (171)

Edwards spent his life speaking, and writing to prepare for speaking, and publishing both his thoughts and his senses.  He stands as a bulwark against any capitulation of the pulpit in the church to anything short of divine ‘excellency’, glory, beauty, and love.

Application

We go to Stockbridge MA, the location of Edward’s last pulpit, sometimes for a night or two.  It helps us to find our way.

In these Lenten sermons, talking with Edwards in light of the Gospel in Scripture, we have moved from Scripture to Doctrine to (as now) Application.   Edwards’s evocation of the beauty of creation, and his Johannine efforts in voice and speech, readily take us straightway to the issues of our lives.  Day by day, we are finding our way.

Fyodor Dostoevsky gives dear Alyosha one of our verses, as his signature in The Brothers Karamazov:  ‘except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’.  In service, we are finding our way.

The little, daily death of service, the service of Christ, and the responsive service in Christ, is that which finally bears fruit.   We shall wonder on our way home about the performative adequacy of our service in Him.

For instance, the full humanity of gay people and current discrimination against them in the United Methodist church, of which from this pulpit we have spoken numerous times, continues to engage our service.

With some courage several church leaders this year published a book of divergent views regarding Christian faith and homosexuality in United Methodism, titled FINDING OUR WAY.   With respect for these writers, several of whom I know personally, and a couple of whom I count as real friends, and one of whom you have heard from this pulpit not so many years ago, I present a book review, attached to the print form of this sermon, and available on my blog, and also in copy form in our office today, along with a few copies of the book reviewed, and copies of a resolution that I have submitted which has approved for consideration in my home conference, Upper New York.

With respect, and out of love, I differ with most of what is written in FINDING OUR WAY. The review will give the details.  But the singular heart of that difference is the gospel itself.  Our gospel reading today, taking its place within the full gospel of John, and thereby within the eternal day of grace in Jesus Christ, celebrates the liberality of the gospel, the good news of a Father’s house in which there are many rooms.   A page over from our lectionary reading—they have to be read in context—we have the announcement, ‘in my Father’s house there are many rooms’.  This is the liberality of the gospel of grace, freedom, pardon, acceptance, forgiveness, mercy and love.   Many rooms.  One for the sisters, cousins and aunts of John Wesley, we hope.  But others for Mahatma Ghandi, Anwar Sadat, Elie Wiesel, the Dalai Lama, Pope John 23, and, yes, John Calvin.  There is no traction, no space in such a gospel for bigotry on the basis of status, class, race, gender, embodiment or orientation.  Many rooms.

After naming the rooms, in John 14, the Johannine Jesus goes on to say that he is Way, Truth and Life.  That is, wherever there is a way, wherever there is truth, and wherever there is life, there He is.  So no one comes to the Father except through a way that in truth leads to life.  And wherever anyone truly finds that way and truth and life, there and then they have found, or been found by Jesus Christ. We used to sing, growing up, give me ‘land lots of land beneath the starry skies above’.  That is a musical setting, it could be, for the liberality of today’s gospel.  In finding our way, the rest of the Bible can help us, and teach us, too. Jesus could teach us in Matthew 25, about caring for the least.  Paul could teach us in Galatians 3, about the end of social distinctions.  John could teach us, as he does today in John 12, and also later in John 14, about the priority of love.  That is, as we continue to pray and work for the acceptance and full affirmation of sexual minorities in our time and in our churches, we do so listening to and for the gospel.

Again, today, you will be puzzled that there is no ethical teaching in John, no moral exhortation, no sermon the mount or sermon on the plain.  None.  With one exception:  ‘love one another, as I have loved you’.

I grew up among people whom I think of when I go to the quiet mountains of Stockbridge, MA whence Jonathan Edwards was banished in about 1750. It is about half way home, I guess.  They were practical people.  They loved God by loving the things of God.  The loved Nature.  They loved Work.  They loved other people.  They loved OTHER people, people down on luck, different, in the minority, outside, excluded.  They loved Country.  They loved Church.  They loved Family.  At their best, their love was as high as Mt Marcy, and as deep as Seneca Lake, and as shimmering as Glimmer Glass, and as powerful as Niagara, and as steady as the Hudson, and as wide as Ontario and all outdoors.  They knew from harsh experience the brevity of life, the horror of loss in death, the stinging pain of grief.  They trusted the giver of life to give eternal life, and then tried to live eternal life here and now, in service.  I see them, these loving people, many now dead.   Instinctively they eschewed exclusion, owing to a dim memory of their own times of being excluded.  I wonder over time if we could see our way clear to do the same?

Coda

In a few weeks, most of the sugar season will end, the fires will be banked until another March, the snow will partly melt, the sap become syrup will be shaped into candies, and bottled and sold.   Some churches, poor by worldly standards, poor by urban standards, will hold a spring supper—the most delicious of foods—ham and beef and everything you can want or imagine.  For dessert they will bring you a bowl of snow, your victory over what you have battled all winter, now served up to you, to the victor go the spoils, you now Lord for a moment of nature and winter.  A hot pitcher of steaming syrup someone will pour upon the snow, and it will crackle and congeal and become a heavenly sweetness, and you will enjoy a foretaste of spring, as, we hope, on Sunday, in Scripture and Doctrine and Application, you savor a foretaste of heaven.

Attached the addenda promised above:

Book Review

Book Review:  Finding Our Way:  Love and Law in the United Methodist Church.  Rueben P. Job, Neil M. Alexander, eds. (Nashville:  Abingdon, 2014)

I move in five steps here:  summary, overview, review, conference\discussion, and concluding thoughts.

  1. Summary:  After a personal introductory frame from Job and Alexander, seven UMC general superintendents offer 10-20 page statements about Methodism and gay people, following which Job concludes with a call to prayer.  Two write directly about the full humanity of gay people, one in affirmation (Talbert) and one in denial (Yambasu).  Three offer administrative worries (Palmer—the discipline must be upheld),  (Lowry—the center cannot hold),  (Carter—the connection needs support).  Two offer mildly inclusive reflections on recent conference level experience (Ward, Wenner).
  1. Overview:  The most striking feature of this collection is its nearly complete lack of  theological reflection, biblical interpretation, and homiletical assessment.  Does the gospel offer grace, freedom, love, acceptance, pardon, and hope to sexual minorities or not?  Does the gospel disdain silent or spoken bigotry against sexual minorities or not?  Where do the Scriptures (John 14, Galatians 3, Ecclesiastes, Amos 5), or  the tradition (Bristol, Appomatox, Seneca Falls), or human reason (diagnostic library,  psychological research,) and experience (case studies and stories of gay children harmed by religious bigotry) intersect with these chapters?  Hardly at all, granted occasional interjections, more from Talbert and Carter than others.    One major exception is the attention Lowry pays to Acts 15 (and so Galatians 2, which he somehow neglects), the Jerusalem Conference.   He is right to do so.   His reading of the passages however is exactly the full opposite of their meaning  (see, for example, J. L. Martyn, Anchor Bible Commentary, Galatians, among many others).  Lowry argues that the point of the Jerusalem Conference was order.  It was not.  It was freedom, the freedom for which Christ sets free.  Other than our own current debate the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15, Gal. 2) is the historical high water mark of religious interest in detailed sexual debate—circumcision then, gay love now.   In the Bible, Paul leaves behind tradition for gospel and Peter accedes.   (Freedom not order.)  The uncircumcised are the recipients of the gospel (then) as are gay people (today).  Lowry:  ‘the famous debate at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is a debate over order, the doctrinal discipline of the church’ (74).  No.  No it is not.  In choosing to leave behind religious order, textual rigidity and an inherited holiness code in order to preach the gospel to the ‘genitally unclean’, men who were not circumcised on the eighth day, the church decided that gospel ever trumps tradition, and grace ever trumps order.  It is the perfect biblical citation for this debate, only Lowry reads it upside down.  We will not ever ‘find our (administrative) way’ until and unless we first reflect theologically, interpret biblically, and assess homiletically.  In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, there is no male or female.  Nor gay nor straight.  Are gay people people or not?  5/5 or 3/5 human?  (We have a bad habit in this country, of finding ways to fractionalize the marginalized.)

We baptize, confirm, commune, forgive and bury gay people.  We somehow cannot find our way to marry or ordain them?   We baptize, confirm, commune, marry, ordain, forgive and bury those who have undergone surgical abortion, and offer the same to those who oppose abortion.  Can we not live ‘in all things charity’?

  1. Review:  Palmer’s distinction to affirm ‘uphold’ more than ‘enforce’ (his assigned theme), in interpretation of the book of discipline has some merit and more grace, and reflects his own sincere, irenic temperament.  Ward does honor the ‘brave witness’ of a lesbian couple who suffered the bigotry of the Mississippi conference to bear witness to their love for each other.  Talbert has said and done the right thing, well prior to this collection, and his essay is the truest of the seven.  He and his African colleague are the only two who directly state what they personally think regarding the full humanity of gay people.   (Carter rightly affirms that every person is created in God’s image, and laments theological incoherence.)
  1. Conference (that is, Discussion): Carter.  Carter calculates (perhaps accurately, but there is no documentation) that small progressive jurisdictions (we could read here, ‘northern’ could we not?) have more presence, voice, vote and leadership on boards and agencies than do larger and more moderate (we are meant to read here, ‘southern’, are we not?) jurisdictions.  Talbert.  Talbert simply and categorically states that the discriminatory language about gays in our church is wrong and cannot claim allegiance, loyalty or support.  The UMC today provides ‘liturgical resources for pastors who may choose to use facilities of congregations to bless animals, fowls, inanimate objects, and more.  Are not our LGBT sisters and brothers of sacred worth like all God’s creatures’? (37)  Yambasu.  Yambasu equates homosexuality with promiscuity, sexual slavery, and adultery, describes the Bible as infallible, and places the denigration of gay people on par with the venerable inheritance of the ten commandments (87).   The voice, or at least a voice, of Methodism in Africa.  To the extent that his view represents African Methodism, it is a communicative benefit to have his remarkable and disappointing perspective stated in the raw.   Lowry.  Lowry implores us to keep covenant with one another, as he stated in a recent interview, ‘covenant is Old Testament 101’.  Many would respond that the question is not whether to keep covenant, but in and about what to keep covenant.  If the gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified, requires the affirmation of the full humanity of gay people and the full rejection of bigotry against sexual minorities in the name of scriptural authority, then the point of covenant is mutually to commit to that gospel.  Covenant on behalf of rules of discipline that deny the gospel is false covenant.  In the recent interview Lowry admits that a substantial USA UMC majority now affirms same gender marriage and ordination for gay people; he speaks wisely and protectively of the guaranteed appointment; he deplores the waste of resources in time and money which are going into this ongoing debacle.  Wenner concludes: “I pray and work for a future where we will find ways to embrace diversity on many issues, including human sexuality, allowing us to think differently.  Perhaps we may even be able to live with different answers concerning clergy who live in faithful and loving homosexual partnerships and those who choose to conduct same-gender marriages.”

Thoughts:  1. The Book of Discipline affirms a moderate pro-choice position regarding abortion.  But when it comes to marriage and ordination, we do not exclude those who practice surgical abortion, nor those who reject such practice.  We have a position as a church.  But we allow for differences in practice, practices that both agree with and conflict with our stated position.  We do not deny ardent pro-life preachers ordination because they refuse to practice or affirm others to practice abortion.  Nor do we exclude from ordination women who have had abortions or men who have provided pastoral help to others in the course of such a procedure.  If we can find a way to live together, regarding marriage and ordination, when it comes to abortion, we should be able to do so regarding homosexuality.  2. The first task of an interpreter is to honor and affirm the texts interpreted.  In this case, rightly, our general superintendents, interpreters of the book of discipline, affirm the value of the book to be interpreted.   Once the general conference has passed off a version of the discipline for another four years, it falls to the bishops, along with others to interpret and apply it.   It may help our leaders to rehearse again some of the basic modes of interpretation of texts, biblical texts and others, taught and learned years earlier.  Most passages, including your favorite scriptural passage, parable, story, psalm or teaching, allow more than one faithful reading.  There may for sure be out of bounds readings, but multiple legitimate ones, too.   Simply on a non-literalist hermeneutic, diversity of readings of the discipline itself should be expected.   So the dozen affirmations in the discipline of the requirement of pastoral care for gay people may rightly be read as a requirement for pastoral ministry for gay people who are getting married or discerning vocations.  Gay marriage and ordination may be understood as not only permissible, but required, to the fulfillment of these paragraphs. 3. We further do admit that while all abhor war, some are pacifist and some are not and all are part of the UMC.  Why we can allow latitude regarding issues of life and death, abortion and warfare, but not regarding love and marriage, is a mystery and truly says much about the remains of the mind of the church (UMC). 4. Marriage:  UMCBOD Para. 340 2.a.3.a.  (Duties of pastor) To perform the marriage ceremony after due counsel with the parties involved and in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of the United Methodist Church.  The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor.  So.  Do we mean this?  Are we going to ‘enforce’ as Br. Palmer says ‘enforce the discipline’?  Here the burden of responsibility is clearly, unequivocally placed upon the pastor whose ‘right and responsibility’ it is to decide to marry a couple.  There is no shading here, no hem or haw.  The pastor decides.   After due counsel (pastoral care) and in accordance with state law and church rules.  No comment here is offered to the situation when state law and church rules, both of which are to be upheld, are different.  Rightly, the BOD leaves these difficult (pastoral) decisions in the hands of the minister.  “The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor”.  Not the General Conference.  Not the General Superintendent.  Not the District Superintendent.  Not the Charge Conference.  The pastor. As it should be.

Resolution Concerning the General Conference and Homosexuality

WHEREAS, according to The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” and,

WHEREAS, two “agree to disagree” proposals were soundly defeated during separate votes by the nearly 1,000 delegates gathered for the United Methodist Church’s 2012 General Conference in Tampa, FL, therefore keeping the current discriminatory disciplinary language, and

WHEREAS, One defeated 2012 proposal would have changed the Book of Discipline simply to say that gays and lesbians are “people of sacred worth” and that church members “differ about whether homosexual practices (are) contrary to the will of God” and,

WHEREAS, at least 15 regional Annual Conferences have rejected the denomination’s stance on homosexuality, and

WHEREAS, 35 states now allow gay marriage, and the United Methodist Book of Discipline (para. 340 2a.3a) states that the decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor “in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of the United Methodist Church.” and

WHEREAS, “one of the top reasons 59 percent of young adults with a Christian background have left the church is because they perceive the church to be too exclusive, particularly regarding their LGBT friends” (Kinnaman, David, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith), and

WHEREAS, many United Methodists in the United States, as well as persons from other countries, acknowledge that the church is divided on this issue but feel that current discriminatory disciplinary language is harmful not only to the groups that it attacks but to the future of the church, as such language is alienating to both present and future members, and

WHEREAS, a resolution very similar to this one was presented and passed by the North Carolina Conference in 2013,

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Upper New York Conference of 2015, gathered in Syracuse, NY, implore the 2016 General Conference to change the language used in The Social Principles, and to affirm the place of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) members within the church, including access both to marriage and to ordination.

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

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Religious Affections

Sunday, March 15th, 2015

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John 3:14-21

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Scripture

Our newspaper reported this week about a man who built an igloo out of the snow mountain on his front lawn.   The mounds of snow, several feet high and deep and wide, offered him an architectural opportunity.  Remembering his growing up years, he built igloo.  (He grew up, the paper said, in upstate New York.)  His igloo included four rooms.  His wife decorated the rooms with art-work and the window sills, open to the elements, with candles.  He was photographed and looked happy with his work.  It may have been that he recalled in the excavation some part of his growing up years, the habits he had acquired at an early age.

“It is no small matter whether one habit or the other is inculcated in us from early childhood; on the contrary, it makes a considerable difference, or, rather, all the difference.” (repeat).

This is the voice of Jonathan Edwards, with whom we converse, to some measure, in these Lenten sermons.   Real religion involves religious affections, or so Edwards taught.  Give some consideration this morning to your own religious affections.  Your experience.  Your dispositions, inclinations, predilections, and affections.

Just before our gospel reading, Nicodemus, thrice mentioned in John, has departed.   You remember his interview with Jesus.  He asks about being born again.  He asks about resurrection life.  He asks about spirit.  In the nighttime interview, Jesus answers him:  You must be born anew.  Your religion, your religious affection, counts on this.  Our gospel today takes the same theme further.

God is love.  (Or Love is God.) Eternal life is trust in God who is love.  The doorway to eternal life is trust.  We learn this in our experience.  This trust is a gift, God’s gift.  With open hands we receive the gift of God.   We do not achieve or earn or create this trust.  It is given to us.  The gift comes wrapped, belief and trust and faith and knowledge come gift wrapped in meaning, belonging, empowerment—in the beloved community.

To make sure the hearer and reader of his gospel get the full measure of his point, the author of John uses a great old word, Judgment.  KRISIS in Greek.  You hear our own word, CRISIS, there.  Until John, more or less, Judgment was reserved for the end of time, the eschaton, the apocalypse.  John, as is resonantly clear here, says something different.  Judgment is not at the end of time.  Judgment is now.  Judgment does not await the arrival of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven, or the millennial reign, or wars and rumors of wars, or signs of the times.  No.  The critical moment is now.  John has replaced speculation with spirit.  John has replaced eschaton with eternal life.  John has replaced Armageddon with the artistry of every day.  John has courageously left behind that to which most of the rest of the New Testament still clings.  John has replaced then with now.  What courage!  The upshot of this change, as recorded in our Scripture today, is the near apotheosis of experience.  And as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience, Who He is (Schweitzer).

In other words, the ancient near eastern apocalyptic, of heaven and end of time judgment, still present in various religious traditions, as we have tragic and sorrowful occasion to see in our own time and struggles with violence, is replaced.  In your experience.  This is the judgment.  The light has come into the world.

As my grandmother used to ask, ‘Are you walking in the light?’

Likewise, we notice that the letter to the Ephesians, written by a student of Paul, makes a complementary affirmation.  By grace you are saved through faith (he writes this twice, or an editor has added a second rendering).  The phrase, both in its repetition and in its cadence, seems clearly to be a prized inheritance for the Ephesians.  God is loving you into love and freeing you into freedom.  God first loved us.  You are not made whole by your doing.  You are God’s beloved, and so are made whole, made healthy, made well, ‘perfected’.   Both in our successes and in our failures, we truly depend upon a daily, weekly hearing of this promise and warning.  In our experience, we are given to trust God.  Our response in actions will then forever be overshadowed by real love, by God’s love.

Doctrine

The Marsh pulpit in this decade has conversed come Lent with Calvinism, a sibling tradition, different in emphasis from our own, but one deeply embedded in the long history of New England.  My joy in learning more this winter about Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758, a contemporary of John Wesley, I have shared only to encourage you to know something about him, too.  If in Northampton MA, you could visit his old haunts.  If reading about our American history, you could appreciate him through the critical and criticized masterpiece of Perry Miller.  If meditating you could re-focus in faith by recalling his emphasis on beauty, on excellence, on grace.  A University pulpit, like any, strives weekly to preach the gospel, as Augustine noted, ‘to teach, to delight, and to persuade’.   In slight measure, our duty here may accentuate, at least come Lent, and its seasonal discipline of disciplines, the first, to teach.

Today, as a doctrinal consequence upon our Holy Scripture, we shall simply, or singularly, approach Edward’s consideration of experience, what he called the ‘religious affections’.   He made his most careful study in this area, after the Great Awakening of 1740.  The evangelistic success of his preaching in Northampton, which brought George Whitefield to the farm country of western Massachusetts, strangely caused him consternation.   He had occasion to question his own success.  That is, he wondered just how truly religious some of the newly acquired affections were, in North Hampton and beyond.  I find that in itself a remarkable, even heroic, spiritual move—to find in your success an occasion for self-criticism.

Edwards, good Puritan he, made two lists of twelve signs each, one a list of false signs of religious affection, and one a list of true.

In an earlier version of the sermon I had these ready to give to you.  You may be relieved to know that what follows is a summary instead.

Edwards distrusts appearances, when it comes to religion, with good Protestant and Biblical warrant, as you recognize.  He distrusts, you may be surprised to hear, given his fatherhood of the Great Awakening:  emotion, eagerness, excitement, biblical literacy, volubility, comfort, religious effort, self-confidence, verbosity, elocution, and impact on others.  This list he offered after, not before, the great religious upswing, known the world over, of 1740.  The fullness of love can actually be counterfeited, he judged (or maybe, he saw with his own eyes).

Today we might say:  religion is not a good thing, or not necessarily a good thing.  Religion is like the weather, and theology in that way like meteorology.  It can be good.  But.  If it causes the brother to stumble…If the Sabbath is not made for man…If the inside of the cup is not cleansed…If all that glitters is not gold…If, with Cervantes and the Quixote, appearance threatens reality, then religion is not good.  Many great troubles today are religious, from Ferguson to Tikrit to Gaza to our own home and our own town.

Rather, this quintessential Yankee Puritan Calvinist trusts reality, not appearance:  the divine source, the nature (insert Love) of God, holiness and beauty, intellectual understanding, humility, self-criticism, gentleness, tenderness, harmony—in short, whatever is Christ-like.  He lived through the aftermath of two cycles of religious fervor, out in Northampton, and came out with a balance of wisdom like that of a serpent as well as innocence like that of a dove.

Today we might say:  when you go to pray, enter your closet, and shut the door, and if you fast, wash your face and smile, and be not a saint abroad but a devil at home.   Prefer a tithing Christian to a born again Christian every time.

Edwards, then, puts a major daily question before us about religious affections, and about religious experience: what here is appearance and what here is reality?

Application

Moving, in good Puritan form, from Scripture, through Doctrine, to Application:  how shall we apply this to our own life today?

On one hand, we might look at the modes of representation, of appearance, that intend or pretend to connect us in reality.

For all our vaunted IT, are we any closer to IThou?  IT or IThou?  Not only for our soon to return undergraduates, but seriously for them, as well as for all of us, the question of this relationship looms.  Daily.  How much do the newer technologies aid us in the timeless challenge of becoming fully human?

The Buddhist says:  Wherever you are, be there.

Are we?  Are we ever truly anywhere anymore?  Are we ever unplugged to sufficient measure that we can relate to one another, to self, to world, to God?

Are we ever fully free, heart and spirit, to see and be and be awed by the sunrise, to look at and be entranced by the night sky, to love and be in love with the beloved, to swim in the fresh water of freedom, grace and love?  Do we live to work or work to live?  Is there still a way through the snow pile to an igloo?

The world does not revolve around my inbox, or yours.

This is good news—wisdom to the mighty, honor to the brave.  And it is good sense.  And even good business.  One writer noted: ‘Every business person, regardless of national origin, is more likely to transact business with a colleague or counterpart he has worked and socialized with.’  Real commerce happens in real time, among real people, who really know and like and want to work with each other.

Does e-mail and its cousins help make and keep human life fully human? Consider the mode:  No voice or face, nor body, nor personhood, nor privacy, nor life?  Who—really—beyond 15 minutes a day—wants to communicate, or live, this way?  To say nothing of the practice of ministry.  How do we approach I/Thou in the reign of I/T?

How do we  conjure and remember the  wisdom of Martin Buber?

“Love does not cling to the I in such a way as to have the Thou only for its ” content,” its object; but love is between I and Thou…

The basic word I-You can only be spoken with one’s whole being. The basic word I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being…

On the other hand, we might look at our more intimate relationships.  Five times this year we have spoken from this pulpit about safety on campus for women.  We shall continue to do so, so that Marsh Chapel, with partners near and far, will continue to be a sacred space that is a safe place.  The bifurcation of appearance and reality endemic to cyber culture—think Yik Yak—has consequences in many directions, one of which is the peril of losing the muscle and habit of interpersonal conversation, discourse, and—affection.  It takes practice to learn to listen well and deeply.  It takes time to develop the vocabulary and tongue to speak from the heart.  It takes live experience, living engagement to see and hear others as multi-dimensional not one dimensional beings, real people not appearances.  All of us, older and younger, continue to learn and grow, and over time, a new and healthier national and collegiate culture will emerge.

A recent review of the documentary, The Hunting Grounds, by Ty Burr, raises the same point, in its conclusion:  Emotional intimacy can be found everywhere online while vanishing from the physical world.  The (movie) does a fine and fierce job of portraying campus sexual assault as a national disease.  It never dares to suggest that it’s a symptom. (BG G6 3/13/15).

Nietzsche famously argued that if God is dead everything is allowed.  With a wisp of John 2, and faith and trust and belief still in the air, like a harbinger of a spring not quite here, we might put it otherwise, and in a positive mode.  If the language of worship, of divine love and a responsive human love, can be learned and lifted and shared, then there is a capacity, a cultural capacity, a cultural syntax and grammar and spelling that gradually can offer an alternative to our current malaise.  Affection, real emotional intimacy in word and deed, might find its wellsprings in Religious Affections, real emotional intimacy in word and deed:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

Then…

Because God made the stars to shine.  Because God made the ivy twine.  Because God made the ocean blue.  Because God made you, that’s why I love you.

With joy, right here, in these years, we have seen young life become new life, as we have in some beautiful weddings this winter.  This happens in college. One of the sources of healing on campus is worship.   Against all odds, in the Hunting Grounds, it may just be the one thing needful.  One who knows in experience the love of God has then the heart with which to love another.  And the language.  And the sensitivity.  And the humanity.  And the capacity.  The capacity to defeat rapacity.

Hear the Gospel!  Scripture:  Your experience counts.  Doctrine: Reality not appearance is at the core of religious affections.  Application:  Balance IT and IThou, and let your affections be formed and informed by your religious affections.

“It is no small matter whether one habit or the other is inculcated in us from early childhood; on the contrary, it makes a considerable difference, or, rather, all the difference.”

-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.

Sweet Chariot

Sunday, March 8th, 2015

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John 2:13-22

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In (or near) the year 850 bc, Elijah, the prophet, stood against the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.  He alone stood against 450.  The enemy prophets called on Baal to bring fire.  Baal did not.  But Yahweh did, at Elijah’s imprecation.  Cry aloud, for he is a god.  Either he is musing.  Or he is inside.  Or he is on a journey.  Or he is asleep—he needs to wake up.  Maybe he does not hear well.  Try again.  Elijah also announced the end of a great drought.  On the way to the river Jordan.

In the year 820, Elijah went up a high mountain, not unlike that on which Jesus stood some weeks ago in Mark, and listened for God.  He heard God.  Not in fire, or smoke, or whirlwind, or techno wizardry, or techno frenzy.  For God was not there.  But in a still small voice.  In silence, the silence before hearing and speech. In conscience.  In mind and will. The Lord passed by, and a great strong wind rent the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire—a still, small voice.   On the way to the river Jordan.

In the year 800bc Elijah, the troubler of Israel, saw King Ahab, through his wife, Jezebel, take the garden of a poor man, Naboth, and kill Naboth in the process.  I will give you a better vineyard for it.   But Naboth did not want another, but his own.  And Ahab sulked, vexed and sullen, and lay down on his bed, and turned his face, and would eat no food.  But Naboth held onto his vineyard.  But Jezebel said, ‘Do you govern Israel?  Arise and eat bread and let your heart be cheerful.  I will get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.  But Naboth resisted her, too.  So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death.  And Jezebel said, go and take Naboth’s vineyard, for he is dead.  But Elijah confronted the king.  Have you killed and taken?  Then I tell you—In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood.  Elijah, the troubler of Israel.  It is one thing to desire another’s property, and another to take it by force.  Elijah held a mirror before the country that wanted such a king, and the influence of such a queen.  On the way to the river Jordan.

In the year 30ad, Elijah’s spirit awakened Peter, who went up a high mountain, with Jesus, to see Him changed.  Elijah brought reason and morality to the religion Moses founded.  Lent is meant to remind us of the priority of worship.  Find a way to get to worship.  Worship brings the insight of personal need, lifted in prayer.  Worship brings the insight of another’s hurt, lifted in communal, singing, four part harmonic hymns.  Worship brings the insight of clarity, a word fitly spoken, lifted in the sermon.  Worship brings the insight of choosing, the choice of faith, not thrill but will, lifted in the invitations, to devotion, discipline, dedication.  Worship brings the insight of loyalty, of heart, lifted every Sunday in the offering of gifts and tithes.  Elijah brought hope, prophetic hope, into the tradition and minds of his people.  On the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 1735, the spirit of Elijah rested on the New England community of North Hampton, and the ministry of a Puritan divine, Jonathan Edwards, our Calvinist interlocutor this Lent.  Edwards saw the divine light shining in the human soul.  Edwards saw that the material universe exists in God’s mind.  Edwards saw faith in the willingness of saints to be damned for the glory of God.  Edwards saw religious affections, inclinations, dispositions, all gifts of God in faith, the love of God that kindles joy, hope, trust, peace and ‘a sense of the heart’.  Edwards saw the centrality of the experience of faith: a person may know that honey is sweet, but no one can know what sweet means until they taste the honey.  Edwards saw that ‘God delights properly in the devotions, graces, and good works of his saints.’  Jonathan Elijah Edwards, our New England precursor, walked along the Connecticut River, on the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 1865, in our nation’s capital, the spirit of Elijah touched the tongue of Abraham Lincoln.  Months and days before Lincoln died, Lincoln cried out, with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us finish the work that we are in.  Real cost, real costs, occasion our very freedom to gather in community for worship this morning.   The same spirit, of 850bc, that presence, that quickened consciousness, that affection, that devotion, that inclination were present with Lincoln, and are with us today.  You have the brute fact of the brute creation.  You have too the spirit.

In the year 1951, the spirit of Elijah rested in the mind of Ray Bradbury.  He wrote a book, Fahrenheit 451 (this is the temperature at which paper burns), an eschatological prophecy about the end of books, the end of reading, the end of memory.  The novel ends along a river.  Montag finds himself with hoboes around a campfire, along the river bank.  He is surprised to find that fire, the mode of book destruction he has resisted, can ‘give as well as take, warm and well as burn’.   He waits in the shadows.  The men around the fire summon him out of the dark, and take him in.  He learns that each one of them has committed some book to memory.  One is living Plato’s Republic.  One is the work of Thomas Hardy.  One has memorized several of the plays of Shakespeare.  Byron, Machiavelli, Tom Paine, and the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—all these are carried in the minds of hoboes, walking libraries, the remaining memory of the art of the race.  “What have you to offer?” they ask Montag.  “Parts of Ecclesiastes and of the Revelation to St. John”, he replies.  In 2015, an age that has eschewed reading for scanning, books for blogs, google for memory, and earning for knowing, Elijah Bradbury’s word resonates.  On the way out from the river Jordan.

In the year 1959, down in the southern third of Alabama, the spirit of Elijah rested on the mind of Harper Lee.  She wrote a book, a great book, a book great because it changed people’s minds and hearts.  Like Augustine’s Confessions.  Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Like The Diary of Anne Frank.  Like Elie Wiesel’s Night.  Like what Tom Hanks tried to do with Philadelphia.  The prophet’s magic mantel, which divides the river Jordan, pierces the heart.   Lee’s pastor, our friend, Thomas Lane Butts, spoke of her to me some years ago.  All on the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 1965, in early March, the spirit of Elijah walked across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  John Lewis was there, ‘not angry, but full of righteous indignation’, as he said.  Through the history, offices and gifts of Boston University we sat next to him over dinner three years ago.  He wanted to be a preacher, growing up: I would come home and preach to the chickens, he remembered. If nothing else, perhaps 50 years hence we could remember that real change is real hard but comes in real time when people really work at it, on the ground, in personal conversation, then in small groups, with gifted leadership.  Down on the way from the River Jordan.

In the winter of the year 2015, Elijah, the spirit of Elijah brooded 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.   But also.  The sore memory muscles wrestling with the horror and mayhem—needless and cruel—of  Marathon 2013.  The blizzard of feeling and thought inevitably brought by a current courtroom trial to the surface.  The rush of anger alongside the search for the better angels of one’s nature.  You may not daily recognize Elijah.  But he is present.  Morning in reading.  Mealtime in prayer.  Evening in quiet.  Sunday in worship.  (People have such odd reasons for avoiding worship.)  On the way forward from the river Jordan.  Elijah: elusive spirit, mysterious ghost, the divine present absence, personified.

On March 8 of 2015, the spirit of prophet Elijah hovered in the nave of Marsh Chapel, Boston University.   The chapel has given, to you and others, over many decades—beauty, grace, preachment, music, recollection.  Some here have found God, and some here have been found by God.  Marsh—a gift.  And so you have responded.  By listening on the radio—good.  By joining us one Sunday—good.  By giving to and through this ministry—good.  By inviting someone to listen, too.  By inviting someone to come with you.  Good.  By dreaming of an even more permanent place, and even stronger witness, and even more vibrant voice at Marsh.  One of you may choose to endow the deanship of this chapel.  Good.  Elijah awaits us.  On the way from the river Jordan.

In the year 20??, I apologize, I have mislaid the exact date, the prophet Elijah will be on my doorstep, and knocking on your door.  Perhaps at midnight.  Maybe at noon day.  Possibly at dawn.  Or in the wee hours of the morning.   The eschatological prophet, the prophet of the last things, the one invited by Peter to a booth with Jesus, Elijah, the prophet of God, will make a pastoral visit.  In the last hour of my life, and yours.  There will be the river Jordan.  There will be a mantel slapped on the water.  There will be a parting of the ways.  There will be a step forward.  There will be a chariot, a sweet chariot, a swinging sweet chariot, a firey, swinging, sweet chariot.  There will be a presence.  Could it be that the weeks of cascade, the days of Nevada, the snow and snow and snow of our 2015 New England winter of discontent should carry an evocation, a query, a reminder, a call, premonition, a measuring, a warning, a promise?  Most of what we spend our time on, and our money, doesn’t matter at all.  It is the spirit that giveth life.

In the year to come, sometime, going back a half step, an Elijah spirit will usher us toward only the book of Harper Lee, a surprise and an adventure.  In this newly discovered book, I understand, Scout is grown up, and Atticus Finch is old, and the setting is not the depression but the early civil rights movement.  We know whence Scout emerged.  Maybe we will re-read Mockingbird.  One of my predecessors in Rochester was a southerner, Andrew Turnipseeed, a friend of Dr King’s.  At Turnipseed’s funeral TL Butts preached:

“Near the end of Nelle Harper Lee’s wonderful novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, there is a touching and unforgettable scene.  Jean Louise (Scout), young daughter of the courageous Atticus Finch, has persuaded her father to let her come to the courtroom to hear the verdict in the controversial case in which he is defending a black man.  She chose to sit in the balcony with the black people.  The inevitable “guilty” verdict is rendered.  It is over.  Atticus Finch gathers his papers, places them in his briefcase, and begins a sad and lonely walk down the center aisle to the back door.  Scout hears someone call her name, “Miss Jean Louise?”  She looks behind her and sees that all of the black people are standing ups as her father walks down the aisle.  Then she heard the voice of the black minister, Rev. Sykes:  “Miss Jean Louise, stand up, stand up, your father’s passin’.”  Can you hear that?  It begs to be heard.

Here is one way to live.  Elijah’s way.  The spirit way.  The way of confidence born of obedience.  The way of the journey of faith, the obedience of faith.  In this way, we live with the trust to see things through.  To cross over.  To cross the river.  To trust our past.  To  trust our experience.  To trust the spirit.  To trust our Elisha’s, our friends and successors.  To trust that in some way spiritually similar to Elijah at Jordan, a sweet chariot awaits.

A chariot of promise.  A chariot of freedom.  A chariot of hope.  A chariot of deliverance.  A chariot of salvation.  A chariot of heaven.  A chariot to carry us home.

-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.

The Marsh Spirit

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

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Mark 8:31-38

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‘Because it is Hard’

Rigor.  The Marsh Spirit is a rigorous one.

A visitor today to the cradle of liberty, the home of the bean and the cod, coming by air will walk underneath a bright portico at Logan Airport, adorned with the countenance of a familiar President, whose term of office was tragically foreshortened.   He is pictured pointing out a rocket on the launch pad.   You cannot help but pause. John F Kennedy.  Boston Airport.  A new frontier.  A profile in courage.  (To boldly go where no one has gone before, a phrase we recall this weekend especially.) An entrance into a new place.  A New England place.  Like the Gospel itself, a new space, a newness of life. The familiar Presidential Boston voice simply says:  ‘We do not choose to go to the moon because it is easy to do so.  We choose to go to the moon because it is hard.’ (It recalls OWHolmes: Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference…)

The Marsh Spirit, your way of being, visible and virtual both, embraces challenge, with rigor.

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 spirit, one that envisions Christ transforming culture—not just Christ against or Christ above or Christ in or Christ across culture.  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.  Rigor is a feature of this spirit, which we probe today, as in other months, Inquiry, Hymnody, Recollection, Patience, Life, and Secularity.  You honor both the lectionary of the canon and the lectionary of the culture, in this winter of our discontent.

We salute, by the way, in this most rigorous winter, those among us who have with most rigor endured the winter.  The UPS woman climbing a snowdrift.  The janitor plowing at 4am.  The childcare worker arriving early and leaving late.  The man brewing coffee after 3 hours on the T.  All have been inundated by the same amount of snow, but not all have struggled the same amount with the snow.

But in earshot of the Gospel, a question looms.

What if the real ice of 2015, the actual storm and snow of this winter of 2015, the existential blizzard of this season where not meteorological but theological, not weather but whether or not, not snow and ice but thinking twice, not nature but grace?

What if the snow is the easy part?  What if the real storm falling upon us is nihilism, nihilism sweetened by hedonism?  What if our challenge is not meteorological but theological, not natural but cultural, not material but existential, not physical but spiritual?

Scripture: Paul and Mark

In the midwinter of 1979 Jan at sixth months pregnant became very ill with an ovarian cyst.  The physician in NYC told me that he was not sure either—child or mother—would survive, but the surgery was not optional.  Both survived, and we moved suddenly away from school to church, to find our way into ministry and life.

That spring, commuting to finish courses, I met my teacher Lou Martyn in the Union Seminary Quadrangle.  He handed me a book as gift, one of John Knox’s books on the early church (Knox of 20century not of the sixteenth).  I cherish the gift now forty years old, which became a kind of sign for the future, then altogether unforeseen.

I returned this week to Knox on Romans.  To hear what he did hear, here. Like my later teacher NT Wright, Knox took on the hard passages, including this one from Romans.

I marvel at the beauty and mystery of this section of Romans 4, on which Rev. Fleming Rutledge preaches so bravely here last spring:  ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’ (resurrection first, then creation).  Hoping against hope.  (such an odd phrase)

I marvel at the phrase, ‘hope against hope’.  I marvel at its assertion of a hopeless hope, of hope with no prospect, no rationale, no ready support.

I marvel that faith is faith, your faith is your faith, when it is what you are left with, all you are left with, like two young people awaiting surgery, or like an older poet awaiting death.

I marvel that faith is reckoned as righteousness, that what stands up in hope against hope is the faith of Abraham.  Abraham before circumcision, Abraham the father of multitudes not just the religious, Abraham the father then of believers everywhere.  No one can keep the whole law.  Every life includes failure, error, mistake, and misjudgment.  All of us stand in need of grace, pardon, forgiveness.

I marvel at the ordering here of resurrection first and creation second, in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Do you notice?  For Paul here resurrection comes first, then creation, not in a temporal but in an existential sense. Resurrection is the grounding of creation, the grounding of the ground of being.  When Paul writes of God, he writes first of the God who raises the dead, and only second of the God who creates.  I marvel at this.  Even if Paul has somewhat altered the original meaning of Genesis (Knox: This story of Abraham suits the purpose of the writer to the Hebrews, with his somewhat different idea of faith, better perhaps than the purpose of Paul).  The father of faith relies on humble trust in God’s mercy and power, as distinguished from reliance on good works. Hope against hope.  To continue to have hope though it seems baseless.

And with this welcoming word, Paul can sing and soar in Romans 5:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  More than that.  We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

Mark sounds similar:

If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the for sake of the gospel, will save it.

You recognize that this is the voice of an early preacher, whose words Mark has placed in retrospect upon the lips of Jesus.   We see Jesus looking back through the cross, as did Mark.  We hear Jesus through the din of the passion, as did Mark.  We know Jesus through the rigor of trying to follow after him, even if we are long way behind, as did Mark.

He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not.  He speaks to us the same word, ‘Follow me!’  and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time.  He commands.  And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.’ (QHJ, 389).

Doctrine

What if our cultural storm is as much a challenge as our natural one has been?  What if the real snowstorm is this:  our cultural languishes in the doldrums of a pervasive malaise (repeat)?  What if the real ice and wind are in an invisible nihilism, not just the nihilism of academic and student life, but a blowing ice wind of nada…a sense that nothing matters, a sense that nothing counts, a sense that nothing lasts, a sense that nothing is real, a sense that no one is for real (repeat)?  At its worst, academic and student life can become a nihilism, a nihilism sweetened, if that is the word, by hedonism.  But students and teachers come from homes and families, like everybody else, and their culture, this culture, is only a dim reflection of a larger one, a subset within subsets.

The Marsh pulpit brings into duet mind and heart, the academic and the religious, the university and the church, knowledge and piety.   We are not alone in this, or at least, not quite alone just yet.  So, come Lent, each year we lift up a conversation partner for our preaching, one out of a different tradition from our own, one out of the Calvinist tradition, so embedded in New England.   So in other years, Marilynn Robinson, Jacques Ellul, Atonement Doctrine, Karl Barth, Himself (John Calvin), and this year Jonathan Edwards.

The Calvinist emphasis on divine freedom and divine predestination and divine creation and divine scripture are different emphases than those within Methodism on human freedom and human will and human history and human interpretation of scripture, by tradition and reason and experience.  But we learn most from our adversaries, our conflicts and our mistakes.  So, come Lent, we wrestle with others, like Edwards.

Edwards is remembered, for instance, for a fine sentence, a rigorous one at that: Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour, before I should hear the last trump.  Yet his hourly eschatology, Johannine in shape (‘the hour is coming and now is’), like the favorite phrase of our dear and recently departed professor and colleague David Carr, ‘our present future’, has a much deeper root in the mind of Edwards, perhaps America’s greatest native theologian.  It is rooted in his glorious understanding of grace, and the proper response to grace, his glorious vision of beauty, and the proper life in response to beauty.

Today we will simply remember his painful denouement in ministry.  He preached for thirty years from his grandfather Stoddard’s strong Northampton pulpit, and lit the fires of the great awakening there.  But he departed from his grandfather’s decision about holy communion, and that cost him his pulpit.  Edwards began to require a confession of faith, an examination for church affirmation of faith and membership, and thus access to the Lord’s table.  For this decision, His congregation and the larger church threw him out.  He spent the last years of his life in ministry to a few farmers and many native American in Stockbridge MA—not the big church you see on the main street there, by the way, but a little chapel in west Stockbridge.   He was an outcast at the end, perhaps the greatest theological mind in our history.   In his last year he agreed to take on the Presidency of a small college in New Jersey, Princeton by name, and straightway died in his first month of smallpox.

Is Holy Communion, to paraphrase Pope Francis, to be understood as a reward for the perfect or medicine for the weak?

One of the statutes—this may sound odd to you—of one brand of practical theology so called today, is that for theology truly to be theology it must be utterly divorced from the life of the church.   As we begin, with Edwards, we note that his work arose exclusively within the experience of pastoral life, the demands of weekly preaching, and the rigor, the rigor of ministry on what was then the western front.

Rigor, he knew.

Application

Friends, look about you.  Look around.  Listen.  All around you hear voices calling you to new life, rigorous life.  See and hear what is even more blessed than hours of video games, even more enjoyable than another tour of Facebook, even more beautiful than surfing the interweb (☺) even more serious than cyber-culture.

Rachmaninoff

Many of you heard such a voice in the choir’s heroic singing last evening of Rachmaninoff’s ‘Vespers’.  I pity any who did not hear the singular power and powerful beauty of the music.  Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice unto him with righteousness.

Tower of Learning

Or just look around you for a moment.  It is cast in stone, in the architecture of Marsh Chapel, so like the Pittsburgh buildings, Heinz Chapel and the Tower of Learning, completed ten years before the beginning of plans for Marsh Chapel in Boston.  Daniel Marsh was from Pittsburgh.  We learn by imitation.  He was imitating what he saw and remembered. Pitt Tower of Learning:  They shall find wisdom here and faith – in steel and stone – in character and thought – they shall find beauty – adventure – and moments of high victory.

Wit

Or consider this week’s Boston University production of WIT, a play by Margaret Edson who teaches elementary school.   Some years ago she wrote one play.   It was a success.  She was asked to write more, but she demurred.  ‘We are busy people here in 3rd grade.  I have all I want to do with these young minds here.  One play is enough’.

Hers is about death and life, a sort of commentary on Romans, and on Romans 4.   The protagonist is Vivian Bearing, a world class John Donne scholar, and the product of a world class doctoral program.  At age 50, a single strong determined poetry professor, she discovers 4th stage metastatic cancer is killing her.   Her young physician is a former student, who failed to get an A in her course.  Her savior is a nurse, who loves her, loves her physically with hand lotion and hugs, loves her verbally with honesty and grace, loves her personally with kindness and care.  ‘This treatment will be very hard’ she hears the doctor say.  ‘I love hard things’ she retorts.   In 90 minutes she is dead, the curtain falling on the reading of Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny.  Is Donne’s line ‘Death be not proud” to be followed by an exclamation point or a comma?  It comes down to that.   For the physician, it may be, the exclamation point.  For the nurse, it may be, the comma.

Boston University’s Judy Braha gave a sterling, rigorous performance of Vivian Bearing at death, here on Tremont Street in Boston this past week:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee


Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;


For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow


Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.


*******

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,


And death shall be no more;

Death, thou shalt die.

Her performance is the kind of saving collision that can befall earnest academic men and women, a choice encounter of human striving with physical pain and proximate death.

Bob Dylan

Or think of Christopher Ricks of Boston University, after years of labor, who now has  published 960 pages of Bob Dylan’s poetry, the lyrics to his decades of songs.   I wonder how long it took?  You might want to read it in the Library since it weighs 13.5 pounds, is 13 inches square and three inches thick (NYRB 2/19/15).

Between the windows of the sea

Where lovely mermaids flow

And nobody ever thinks too much

About desolation row

Sometimes we have to hear something more than once.   I noticed for the first time this winter how the triads of the fruit of the spirit, in Galatians 5: 22, fall out in rhythmic cadence, one and two and three beat, step, syllable:  1. Love, Joy, Peace.  2. Patience, Kindness, Goodness.  3. Faithfulness, Gentleness, Self-Control.

Rigor.  Yours is a rigorous spirit, Marsh Chapel.

Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour, before I should hear the last trump.

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

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