Archive for April, 2015

Easter Remembrance

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

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John 10:11-18

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Frontispiece

What if the power of Easter, the point of Easter is more about our past than about our future?

What if Easter, and the gospel of resurrection, means more to us about our remembrance than about our expectation, more about our recollection than our anticipation, more about whence than whither, more about what God has done than about what God will do?

You may find this an odd, or contrarian point of view.  After all, you rightly reason, the promise of Easter is the promise of new life, eternal life, resurrection life, hope, joy, and peace in Christ whom God raises from the dead.  All, seemingly, in the future.  Fair enough.  But consider, for a brief few minutes this morning, Easter remembrance.   Consider, if you will, what Easter means for what has been, what Easter means for your remembrance.

So many people can live chained to a broken remembrance, to a mistaken remembrance, to a Lenten remembrance. (Lent is good discipline, but life is not meant for Lent.  Life is meant for Easter.) So many can live caught in a bear trap of implacable memory, trauma, or hurt.  So many live haunted by ghosts of days and nights and people and harm from the past.   Easter comes around once a year to free us from the past, not in forgetfulness but in resurrection, not in a futile attempt to change the facts, but in a spiritual discipline of right remembrance.

Proust and Memory

As some of you know, in the summer of 2003 I went with a friend to a country book store, and for 25cents bought the first 1200 page half of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.  About six years later I spent another quarter at the same shop for the second 1200 page half, of which I have now read 500 pages.  Proust tests memory.  He probes our habits and deceits and perspectives with regard to remembrance.  It is detailed, lively, and exhausting to read, for me, about 3 pages or so a couple of times a week.  That is plenty.  But the project itself is life long, and may take in my case a lifetime of reading.  Proust wrote:  But sometimes the future is latent in us without our knowledge and our words which we suppose to be false forecast an imminent reality (II, 31).

The author of the Gospel of John is also, and mightily, engaged in remembrance.  Imagine a home, in Ephesus, 60 years after Golgotha, at night, candle lit, with forty people present.  Prayer, singing, a shared meal, and quiet all precede a moment of speaking.  Then in remembrance, somewhere near the year 90ad, 60 years after the first Easter, a preacher stands in the room and speaks.  He speaks for Jesus.  He speaks in the Spirit.  His voice is that of the Risen One.  He says, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’.  And in that utterance, that prophetic utterance, a new remembrance is born.  The community of the beloved disciple determined that their original memory of Jesus was wrong, or not right enough, or not big enough to describe what He had meant for them, become for them, revealed to them.  They loved him and they remembered him and–they worshipped him.   His personal presence, I AM THE—Way, Truth, Life, Shepherd, Door, Resurrection, Bread of Life, all—gave them a new way to remember, a better, truer, clearer memory.

I wonder, this Easter tide, as you think of the Good Shepherd watching over his beloved in love, as we too are to do with each other and for each other, though not to each other, I wonder if there is some maturation in memory, your memory, emerging for you? What is back there holding you back?  What is rattling around loose in the back of your mind that needs minding, or mending? Is there something you want to leave behind, to let go?  Or something you want to restore, to reclaim, to recast?  Sometimes our hoarding of things is minor compared to our needless and useless hoarding of cluttered, disordered, mistaken memories. And sometimes our memories need a spring cleaning or two.  It is not a matter of forgetting.  It is a matter of placing things in an Easter light.

How?  In a morning quiet prayer.  In an honest chat with a trusted friend.  In a private moment of pastoral conversation.  In a more formal, planned hour of counseling, of therapy, of spiritual grief work.  In worship, come Sunday.

Martyn on Minear

Some years ago one of my teachers did so, as he remembered one of his own teachers.  He shared the memory with me in 2007.  Sometimes, when I remember to, I take it out and look it over again. This is J L Martyn preaching at Yale at the funeral of Paul Minear. (Memorial Service for Paul S. Minear, 3/24/07;A Personal Word of Thanksgiving   (J. Louis Martyn))

In Paul Minear’s testimony there was no

pious escapism from every-day life.

There was in fact a stark realism.

But it was emphatically a double realism.

A disturbing realism about the multiple forces that choke the life

out of huge numbers of God’s children,

and a daring realism about the power of God

to bless those who mourn,

and to make even the paralytic stand up and walk.

 

Let me give one example.

As he was teaching us to read the Bible,

he spoke to us in unforgettable terms about time.

Time was clearly a Biblical subject that fascinated Paul, and

his fascination with that subject proved to be contagious.

How are past, present, and future related to one another?

 

We often think about our present as the child of our past.

And to some degree the past is the generative parent of the present.

But what, then, do we actually mean,

when in churches such as this one

we speak to God in the Lord’s Prayer,

saying “Let thy kingdom come”?

Could it be that when we pray the Lord’s prayer,

with that clause —  “Let thy Kingdom come”  —

we confess the power of God’s grace in a new way?

Is God’s grace evident precisely in its coming toward us from the future?

 

Are we, in God’s grace, led to sense that

the ultimately determining parent of our present is not our past

but rather God’s future?   Could it be that

we bear witness to that fact when Sunday by Sunday we say to God,

“Let thy kingdom come”?

 

A good number of you will remember the period in which

Rudolf Bultmann was in Germany – in fact, in Europe –

the scholar who had pointed out that

the New Testament documents reflect what many moderns call

a mythological world view.

 

When we read the New Testament, we encounter angels

who speak and act among human beings on earth.

We hear of demons who take up residence in certain tormented people.

We find references to Satan, to principalities and powers,

and to “the god of this world” as a powerful actor in human affairs.

 

Recognizing these so-called mythological elements

in the New Testament,

Bultmann devised an interpretive method

that involved what was called “demythologization.”

 

When this highly respected colleague came from Germany to Boston,

the local Christian theologians arranged a meeting for general discussion,

and they selected one of their own number to provide

a final focus to the conversation.  That climax came, then,

when Minear said with deep respect:

 

“There is between us, Mr. Bultmann, much in common.

And, as is always the case, what we have in common

makes plain the major difference between us.

You have as one of your chief concerns

to demythologize the New Testament,

while I have as one of my chief concerns

that the New Testament demythologize us.”

 

It was a respectful comment.

It was also a telling summary,

for in Minear’s work

the New Testament does demythologize us,

doing so in part by

its Golgotha earthquake,

that is by moving the ground under our feet

in unsettling ways,

in order to open up to us a new world,

the utterly real world,

bringing, in fact, the dawn of what the Apostle calls

God’s New Creation in Christ.

We are not afterward the same.

After 35 Years

Our experience, our own experience, is what we have, and in one sense all we have.  Your experience is meant to be honored, respected, cherished, trusted, and then given over to an Easter Remembrance.

A few weeks ago, speaking of remembrance, a note came from the church we served in Ithaca NY, beginning in 1979.  They are rehearsing their history at their 100th anniversary.  The writer is a Cornell professor’s spouse, who came into the community at that time.  They are giving a vignette in worship each week, a remembrance of things past.  My own memory of those busy years of young adulthood focuses on work, worship, activities, children born, things to do and do.  In some ways, those years stand out for overly active but not necessarily fruitful service.  But her recollection, jarring, and difficult, in its difference from my own, is an Easter remembrance, and a lesson, or a warning, about what lasts, in memory:

#12, April 19:  The Chapel was served by part time ministers until its 64th year, when Bob Hill, newly graduated from seminary, served as our very first full time minister from 1979-81.   (Bob was, young, full of the most wonderful enthusiasm, rode his bike around the neighborhood (according to Sue Cotton), drew a young congregation and the Chapel thrived.)  Today he is Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University.  I especially remember him for something only related to his ministry here, namely his presence at a performance of Brahm’s German Requiem, given by the Ithaca Community Chorus in 1981.  He stood quietly in the back of the concert hall, and wept when he heard these words:  “Behold, all flesh is as the grass, and all the goodliness of man is as the flower of grass.  For lo, the grass withers, and the flower decays.  Now therefore, be patient O my brethren unto the coming, the coming of the Lord.  See how the husbandman waits for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience, till he receive the early rain and the later rain.  So be YE patient also.”  (Elizabeth Mount)

Last night, here in Marsh Chapel, as the choir and collegium finished THEODORA with magnificent and mellifluous duets, with orchestral and choral flourishes, I thought again of that different memory, that different perspective in memory.   Just what are we doing here?  It may be, Marsh Chapel, that your presence, your standing presence, your presence in weeping and rejoicing, your musical and beautiful presence, here, in Easter Remembrance at least, is what matters, lasts, counts, and has meaning.

Easter invades our past, or our sense of the past, or our partial understanding of the past.

Coda

What is Easter and its mysterious power doing in your life this year?  Does this Easter tide bring a rearrangement in remembrance for you?  A willingness to let the Good Shepherd help you to let something go?  A recognition of a dimension in memory partly neglected?  An honesty about trauma but also about grace?  Has God’s future in the Easter gospel somehow invaded your past, and offered another reading, another angle of vision, another perspective?  A saving one?

It would not be the first time.  At Easter, Peter remembered his cowardice, but remembered it with courage, on which the church then was built.  Paul remembered his falsehood, but did so with a confidence in grace, on which the church was then built.  Mary remembered her blindness in the garden, but did so with a keen sight, on which a vision of a different kind of church then was built.  And you? And you and your remembrance?  And you like old Citizen Kane clutching his snow sled Rosebud?  Are you ready, right now, just now, in this here and now, to bask in the light of an Easter Remembrance?  Bask gently.  Emily Dickinson wrote:

By a departing light

We see acuter quite,

Than by a wick that stays.

There’s something in the flight

That clarifies the sight

And decks the rays…

 

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

 

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind –

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

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

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Paralyzing Paradoxes

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

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Luke 24:36b-48

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Good morning! It is such a pleasure to join you from the pulpit today, and I am so thankful to Dean Hill and the rest of the Marsh Chapel staff for this opportunity to be with you as a preacher. You may have felt slight déjà vu with the gospel reading that was just expertly read by my very own father, Rev. Raymond Hittinger. In fact, if I were a cruel preacher, I might put you all through a pop quiz as this week’s passage from Luke is SO similar to the passage read last week from the Gospel of John. Jesus appears to the disciples on the evening of what we now celebrate as Easter Sunday. But in Luke’s account there are major differences. There is no Doubting Thomas as John describes. Instead all of the disciples share in doubt as well as fear. The disciples in John’s account are oddly not afraid when Jesus appears to them; they are joyful. Luke’s account actually seems more plausible. The disciples are more than just frightened by Jesus’ appearance, they are startled and terrified. And rightly so – dead things are supposed to stay dead. Despite Jesus’ allusions to the fact that he would fulfill the scriptures through his resurrection before his death, the disciples, like so many times before, just don’t understand what is going on.

Unlike in John’s account, it is not the disciples who ask to touch Jesus to better understand why he is there. Instead Jesus offers his hands and feet to the disciples, not only to see but to touch. Commentaries on this passage suggest that Jesus inviting the disciples to see his body is for them to recognize that it is him. The invitation for them to touch him is so there is no misunderstanding – this IS Jesus, embodied in front of them. He is not some other person or a Ghost, but is fully resurrected before them. He is a manifestation of a transitional period between the historical Jesus and his ministry on earth and the Christ of the future who will reign in the heavenly realm.

Even with this information, even in their joy of recognizing that this truly was Jesus who had just died two days previously, they were still in disbelief. They experienced an existential disruption by holding in tension the appearance of Jesus before them and the knowledge that he should be dead. While Jesus tries to comfort them by both eating and repeating the words that foreshadowed his death and resurrection, they still do not fully understand what will happen now and into the future. There are hints of the Jesus they once knew but also indications of the figure of Christ that is just beginning to form. They stand at the precipice of this liminal state, doubting and rejoicing at the same time.  Not knowing what to do next, Jesus must tell them what the Scriptures indicate will happen. The disciples are not actively participating until Jesus opens their minds to the Scriptures, but even this action is passive on their parts. Paralyzed in the paradox of fear and joy, the disciples cannot utter any words or contemplate what this reality means for their futures without Jesus.

We are a few days away from Earth Day – the time of year when we’re encouraged to be hyper-aware of our sustainable actions and to show that we care about the environment and the future of Earth.  Here at BU, our enthusiasm for bringing awareness to the environment and its crises is so great that Earth Day has been expanded into a series of events that extends a little over a week (Earth Week +, we call it). Earth Day and Earth Week celebrate the beautiful things about nature, encouraging us to learn about current environmental crises, and hopefully taking on sustainably minded actions. The celebration of Earth Day contains elements both of celebration and of apprehension, reminding us that as we embrace our interconnected existence with the rest of the planet, we also carry a large responsibility in acting in sustainable ways.

Perhaps the most pressing and in some cases contentious environmental issues in our global context today is climate change. Climate change, for some, is controversial. There are people who believe that it is not real, clinging to the argument that the climate change we are experiencing is only a natural phenomenon that is not influenced by human actions. Others hang on to climate change’s outdated moniker, “global warming” to describe it, giving the false assumption that every place on Earth must experience warmer temperatures for climate change to be true. I’m sure some of you experienced something like this during this past winter’s snow…I know I did: “So much for global warming, eh?” Or maybe you saw the video clip from C-SPAN of Senator James Inhofe from Oklahoma on the floor of the Senate with a snowball back in February, arguing that because Washington D.C. was experiencing record cold temperatures, climate change could not be real. One should note that Senator Inhofe is also the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, meaning he is partially responsible for making decisions about how our country as a whole will respond to climate change. Or maybe you heard about how the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has banned the use of the phrases “global warming, climate change, and sea-level rise” to limit any unwanted attention brought to their projects, mostly as the Governor, Rick Scott, is also an avid climate change denier.

You might think that the easy connection to draw between these climate change doubters and today’s Gospel is obvious – both the disciples and these people share in disbelief over something that is right in front of them. You may go so far as to call these individuals doubting Thomases – people who feel that there just isn’t enough evidence to convince them that climate change is caused by human activity. But, I would argue that the denial experienced by the disciples is something radically different than the climate change denial that is currently present in our country. It’s a difference between carrying a tension of joy and terror which leads to disbelief on the part of the disciples, and a willful ignorance, or influenced interests, on the part of those who deny climate change.

The Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, has recently publicly stated that climate change denial is sinful, whether it is spurred by willful ignorance or for political gains. Sinful. Not wrong. Not ignorant. Not backward. But sinful. By those mentioned above either refusing to believe the facts that have been presented by scientists or being swayed by political interests, including the fossil fuel industry, they are committing sin. They are turning away from the severe impacts that climate change is creating around the world and failing to consider the larger impacts on nations that do not have the infrastructure available to address possible disasters on the horizon. They value economic gains and a continued status quo instead of facing the reality that we must make drastic changes in our ways of life to prevent further damage to the planet and to prepare ourselves for future changes in the climate. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. As the epistle writer of 1 John tells us “Sin is lawlessness.” Luther interprets the idea of sin as lawlessness as creating a stumbling block for one’s neighbor. It is insisting on one’s own way. It is failing to love one’s neighbor. This interpretation only serves to strengthen Bishop Jeffert Schori’s argument; in climate change deniers’ actions in pretending that climate change is not happening they are asserting their own way without consideration of those who may need the most help.

Climate change is not a belief. It is a reality. When asked to give her elevator pitch on climate change, science historian and Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes states the following:

“It’s simple. It’s basic physics and chemistry…that we have known since the 19th century. Carbon Dioxide is a greenhouse gas. That means that it’s relatively transparent to visible light, but relatively opaque to infrared. Or to make it even simpler; light comes in, heat gets trapped. So if you put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, more heat gets trapped. And sooner or later, the earth has to warm up. That’s basic physics and there really isn’t any other possibility…That sooner or later has passed, and here we are.”

 

Dr. Oreskes cites that as early as the 1940’s and 50’s scientists were speculating that at some point, they weren’t sure when, this warming was going to take place. We’ve now hit that point of average global temperatures rising. The overall temperature rise then leads to changes in the Earth’s climate, creating new, and sometimes, more intense weather patterns. I won’t bore you with the complex science explanations of how climate change actually works in altering weather patterns (after all this is a sermon and not a lecture) but there is plenty of well-researched information available on the topic with which the majority (97%) of scientists affirm the reality of climate change.

However, just because we know that climate change is real does not always mean that we know the best way to handle its realities. Scientists predict that the impacts of climate change will be devastating for our global ecosystem, and those who live in the poorest nations will face the greatest challenges. Rising temperatures will not only affect weather patterns to create storms that will result in devastating consequences, but weather patterns will also affect people’s access to clean water, food production, and erosion or disappearance of land, especially in small island nations. Developed nations, such as the U.S., possess wealth and ability to potentially handle some of these situations, but developing nations, those which, in most cases, are least responsible for climate change, will likely feel the greatest impacts and have very little means to respond.

We are even starting to see some of the effects of climate change in our own context. As I mentioned before, we experienced the snowiest winter on record in Boston had and record low temperatures. California is experiencing a historic drought, which not only affects residents’ access to clean water, but also impacts the rest of the nation as California is the largest producer of much of the produce that the country relies on.

I traveled to California for a conference on climate change in February. Aside from my joy of escaping our snowy cold winter for sun and temperatures in the 70s, the realities of the drought hit me as soon as I arrived at the conference. The majority of the people attending lived in California, and the theme of the conference was “Why water is sacred,” pinpointing their experience of drought as an effect of climate change. After years of increasingly severe drought, the past year has been a tipping point to create the worst drought situations that California has ever seen. I soon had to alter most of my behaviors I take for granted here (but probably shouldn’t); taking no more than 2 minute showers (turning on the water to get wet, turning it off to soap up, turning it back on to rinse off), eliminating “wasteful flushing,” and overall being much more cognizant of my water usage with every interaction.

The first night there, in our very first session, many of us were devastated by its end. The presenter set forth such a picture of doom and dismay that it seemed pointless to even try to do anything to address climate change. Those who attended felt completely depressed – why did we bother to come to this conference to discuss how the church needs to respond to climate change if there’s no point? Often, when people encounter the projected shifts in climate and the devastating effects that we will most likely see in the next hundred years (drought, flooding, superstorms, and destructive hurricanes, to name a few) they get overwhelmed and depressed by all of this information. The systems that are at play seem too large to challenge and the solutions seem too far out of our grasp to be made into realities. We are paralyzed in our fears about the future and our abilities to create change even with the knowledge that we have gained about the problem. A paralyzing paradox of knowledge and fear. We too, like the disciples encountering the risen Jesus, are in a liminal space between the causes and effects of climate change, looking for answers to guide us forward.

We might ask ourselves, “What can I do?” Or rather, all too often we are swayed to ask “what can I do.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that question on the surface. We should be questioning our own actions, but we tend to get stuck in only looking at what we do as individuals. Our country places a great deal of emphasis on our abilities as individuals which leads to us understanding ourselves as isolated entities. Climate change, as such a large complex issue, only worsens our anxieties when we think of its challenges as something that we have to overcome as individuals. Our paralysis in the paradox of the knowledge of climate change and uncertainty about what to do next is only exacerbated by our assertion that we must do it alone.

Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org and famed climate activist, gave a talk on climate change at BU this past week. One of the most poignant things he shared about advocacy for climate change was this, “The most important thing you can do as an individual is to not be an individual. Come together.” Facing the realities of climate change can seem less insurmountable if we join together in creating opportunities for resiliency. That’s what happened at the conference I attended in California – after the initial evening of feeling distraught, the next two days together enabled us time to have conversation and make connections with each other across denominations, regions, and even areas of interest to help each other in developing plans for our ministries to take on the burdens of climate change.

Another one of the ways that individuals have come together in a big way in the last year was the People’s Climate March that occurred in New York City on September 21, 2014. I was fortunate enough to be one of the 400,000 people in attendance for that march which flooded the streets of downtown Manhattan. The march was in response to a meeting by the United Nations’ Climate Summit of world leaders in order to show popular for action against climate change at a global level. The amazing thing about the march was how it enabled people to come together in support of climate change action from various perspectives. It showed how climate change has already impacted many of our lives, and how we’re not willing to allow global political forces to continue to ignore these realities as global citizens. Even though we may all have come from different perspectives – religious, medical, education, worker’s rights, etc. – we were all united by our desire to draw attention to climate change itself and show how all of these issues are connected to one another.

Coming together in community is not foreign to us as Christians. In fact, it is one of our primary ways of being.  We are called be brothers and sisters to one another in Christ and to serve each other in God’s love. Reflecting on today’s Gospel, the disciples are not encountering the risen Christ on their own in Luke’s account. They are a community joined together to share in this period of perplexity, and will later go on as the community of Christ to proclaim the Good News to the rest of the world. There are no individual actors among the disciples in this story – not like in John where Thomas is singled out. All of the disciples are facing the challenge of the reality of Christ together. As people of faith, we aim to seek justice and righteousness in the world for everyone, not only for ourselves. Again, turning back to the scripture from 1 John read today, “Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he (Christ) is righteous.” We are called to do “what is right” in all situations, and in this case, “what is right” is to recognize the major injustices which will be created by climate change and attempt to ameliorate them as much as possible.

In what ways will doing “what is right” take shape? There are no simple answers, unfortunately. However, hope can be found in the actions of climate activists around the country and world. For example, divestment from fossil fuel industries by colleges and universities as well as denominations has recently become an important means by which activists not only draw attention to the influence of the fossil fuel industry in various political and social institutions, but also encourage investment into alternative forms of energy. Additionally, some communities are focusing on forming alternative economies, such as time banking, which bring community members together in local economies that require less reliance on fossil fuels for goods to be transported. We are capable of being resilient in the face of climate change, and people are already laying the foundation for us to join in.

If we are to effectively address the issues of climate change, then we must find ways of being in community with each other at the local level (within our church and communities) and also at the global level through recognizing the ways all of our actions are interconnected and affect others throughout the world. Making connections with others expands our abilities to understand complex issues by seeing them from multiple perspectives and enables us to share our individual talents with one another to function in a more effective manner. By accepting the realities of climate change and seeking out opportunities to work together, we can eliminate the paradox created by climate change and free ourselves from its paralyzing effects. The disciples will eventually move out of the liminal state created by their disbelief in Jesus’ presence before them by the time of his ascension. Likewise, we must move out of our liminal state of uncertainty to be empowered by our knowledge and communal capabilities to seek justice and create a better, more sustainable future.

Amen.

-Ms. Jessica Chicka, Chapel Associate for Lutheran Ministry

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Easter Sunday: Whence Benevolence?

Sunday, April 5th, 2015

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Mark 16:1-8

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Frontispiece

Whence benevolence?

How did a sprawling, violent creation, 15 billion years in the making, and within it life emerging out of natural selection through random mutation leaving for the devil the hindmost, make space for goodness?

In a world in which a suicidal pilot takes with him 148 innocent victims.  In which religious adherents to ancient eschatologies leave video games in Minneapolis for firearms in Syria.  In which bigotry through race and orientation fill the internet and the pages of newspapers.  In which measures of personal and material success become around the globe themselves the measures of meaning itself.  In which drugged or drugging young adults shoot point blank our faithful policewomen and men.  In which a healthy young man places a home-made bomb directly behind 8 year old boy and detonates it in our very neighborhood.  In which a war of all against all, a world in which homo homini lupus, man is a wolf to man appears to be the default reality all around us, especially the cyber reality all around us.  In such a world, whence benevolence?  Where does good come from?

‘Love is benevolence or good will to others…the disposition which one has who desires and delights in the good of another’.   The disposition one has who desires and delights in the good of another…So, Jonathan Edwards, 1745.

Bene…good.  Volo…will.  Good will.  The will to know, do, be…good.  Whence?

I wonder.

I wonder in such a world if I have any right to ascend a fine pulpit and speak about God and about 20 minutes, and extol the grace of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the promise of heaven, the power and durability of love?  Where is true benevolence in the teeth of such and lasting evil, all around us?  How do we prove to be honest about evil and still celebrate good?  How do we preach and live a dual realism, of cross and resurrection?

It makes me wonder.

And then, something happens, to nudge us forward.  Tuesday I was passing by the TV—I wish I had made notes—and I heard something like this:

“You are going to give your kidney to a woman who needs a kidney, but you are giving it to someone you don’t even know?  Why are you giving your kidney to someone you don’t even know?”

“Well, I tell my kids they should be good to other people.  I try and tell

them that.  Do good to others.  But then, I think, how can I tell them that if I don’t do that myself?  How can I teach them right from wrong if I don’t do that myself? So I decided to give the kidney to someone who needs it.”

Whence benevolence?

Traditions

From tradition.  From inheritance.   Benevolence comes from traditions that honor and cradle the good.

All three of the New Testament accounts of resurrection, those of Peter and Paul and Mary, so attest.    Think carefully, for just a moment, about these witnesses.  In John, Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener, her brilliant witness forever clothed in ignorance.  In Corinthians, Paul recounts what he has heard and said, and ruefully, mournfully confesses that he is not ‘fit to be called an apostle, because he persecuted the church’.  In Mark, in the long week past as recorded in Mark, Peter, later the rock on which the church is built, is himself shamefully remembered, in the firelight, as the one who denied, who forsook, who failed.

And the cocked crowed, again, and again, and again… The rooster sounding out and sounding forth the birth, the creation of a new day and carrying in song the honest recollection of the prior night.

Let us look closely, particularly, at Paul this year.  What he gives he has received, and what he preaches he has been told, by others.  His account is utterly different from Mark’s:  didactic not narrative, theological not spiritual, male not female witnesses, appearance not disappearance, presence not absence.   Yet his confidence in resurrection, which is the basis for his obedience of faith, is every bit as strong as the story of the empty tomb in Mark.   There are many ways of keeping faith.  There are many ways of teaching faith.  There are many ways of preaching resurrection.   All of them, somehow, cause us to consider the possibility that resurrection is more real than our experience, that resurrection questions us, not the other way around.

It is not only the physical agony and social disgrace of Jesus on the cross at the heart of our traditions today and everyday, but also, and more so, if one may say so, the soul wrenching agony and personal disgrace of Peter and Paul and Mary, in cowardice and false zeal and ignorance, which is at the bedrock heart of Easter.  In the blinding brilliance of cross and resurrection, the tradition sturdily and starkly records, our humanity is naked.   Such pain.

Maybe that is part of why we avoid going to church.  We know about cowardice, and about falsehood, and about ignorance, and we know about it from our own actions, our own prejudices and our own mistakes.   They are grievous to recall, as our religious traditions, especially at Easter, force us to do.

Richard III was reburied last week after 500 years.  His spine is still crooked, his skull still crushed, and his cruelty still recalled.   He was buried out of an Anglican church.  Of course he was.  Where else would you be able, with honesty, to take him, before burial, but to a cathedral, where the traditions, sturdy and stark, can bear it.   The seaside?  Stonehenge?  The white cliffs of Dover?  The lake district?  Not enough sand.  Not dark enough, stark enough, with bark enough…

In our traditions, Peter found a way forward, through betrayal, Paul found a way forward, through violence, Mary found a way forward through blind sight.  And we can, too.  And I can, too.  And you can, too.

Tradition does not give life, but tradition does give a way to life, in the Risen One, the Living One, the Sovereign One.  Tradition is not life.  Music, Scripture, Sermon, Communion are not grace.  They are the silver and china, but not the meat and milk.  They are means, not ends.  The end?  Love.  And love, ‘Love is benevolence or good will to others…the disposition which one has who desires and delights in the good of another’.

In fact, what little lasting goodness there may be around us at this late date, rises up come Easter out of our traditions.  Where does good come from?, Huey Long in Robert Penn Warren’s ALL THE KING’S MEN is asked.  From bad.  Good comes out of bad.

Our traditions, at their best, at their truest, and at their toughest, tell a painful story.  Benevolence comes out of the pain of failure, out of the cross.   It comes out of what we see in our own souls, when we are most honest, most vulnerable, and most naked.

That is why ministry is so connected to self-disclosure.

We minimize our traditions at our peril.  A great university without its history, its traditions, its considered past, its chapel, say, is no longer a great university.  And a great education, summa cum laude, out of earshot of the same, is no longer great.

Whence benevolence?  Tradition.  Tradition empowers benevolence.

Church

And from church.  From relationships.  You could say community.  Or fellowship.  Or society.  Or even culture.  But people would miss the point.   Pau’s word here is church.

Benevolence, good will to others, appears, against significant odds, including our own carelessness and wan, glib neglect, in church.

Here is a place where a birth can be celebrated with proper joy, shared happiness, and musical grace.  Here is place where children and young adults can grow up without having to be instantly perfect or prematurely finished.  Church is for the unfinished.  (Like you.  And me.) Here is a place where meaning, belonging, empowerment, community, the things that make human life human as opposed to measured, or productive, or efficient, can thrive.  Here is a place where older people can remember and share memory and be remembered and given help.  Here is a place where death can be faced with dignity, with honor, with grace and with kindness.

The Jesus of Calvary was so born, and did so grow, and was so loved, and did so die.

Starlings swirl together in ‘murmurration’.  They swirl together by the hundreds in spirals, cone shaped and lovely.  It is a form of protection.  A predator has no easy target against that spiral, that communal form, and that shared meaning, that hereditary empowerment, that protective belonging.  You are worth more than many starlings.

Our friend Dean Ray Hart, in his great book UNFINISHED MAN AND THE IMAGINATION, teaches us about the hermeneutical spiral, the beautiful movement of spiraling interpretation in the quest for meaning, and belonging and empowerment, and truth.

I believe in the resurrection of the body, asserts the creed.  That is a reference to the Body of Christ, that is, the church.  I am not smart enough, strong enough, or sensible enough to get along without the church—fellowship, community, congregation, society, culture, others.

Students need the love known and shared in the church.  Sunday by Sunday and term by term.   In prayer.  In music.  In fellowship.  In teaching.  In gathering.  In example.

My father died nearly five years ago.  On his desk there was book, whose theme was benevolence, of a piercing sort.  He had many books, taught here at BU by Allan Knight Chalmers to read a book a day.  The book, short and little known, carried the argument that one should experiment with the attempt to give oneself over to the projects of others, including those people whom we detest, but whose work we may value.  Where will find a book like that?  In Silicon valley?  In the heart of autocracy?  In the heights of academia?  Where will you find the steady measured argument that encourages you to desire and delight in the good of others, including those whose very presence makes you sick?    You might find a hint of it in the body of the crucified, or in the musty library of a deceased preacher.

I think of the great hearted people whom we have served with over the years, and their benevolence.   Their teachers and families empowered their benevolence.  Their communities, families, and marriages embodied their benevolence.  Their own spiritual journeys provided examples of benevolence.  Some teaching out of the distant past.  Some formation out church, community, of true loving relationship.  Some experience of trustworthy people.

After one huge gift to a church, my wife Jan said, I don’t know how I would think about giving that huge amount of money, or how I would feel, or how I would decide or how I would do it.   As you would have, I replied,  Isn’t that great!  Just think, you won’t ever have to worry about that!  You won’t have to face that anxiety!  You married me!  I have spared you all that and so much more!

But actually, we do all have inheritance and community and experience for our benevolence to use.  Maybe not a kidney.  Maybe not a fortune.  But something.  Beginning, it may be, with our most precious possession.  Our time.

Our mentor J Louis Martyn preached at the funeral of Paul Minear, his fellow NT scholar, some few years ago.  He remembered a visit to Boston from Rudolph Bultmann, and Minear’s respectful response:

“There is between us, Mr. Bultmann, much in common.

And, as is always the case, what we have in common

makes plain the major difference between us.

You have as one of your chief concerns

to demythologize the New Testament,

while I have as one of my chief concerns

that the New Testament demythologize us.”

The church tries at Easter to say a benevolent, true word.  It is not we who question the resurrection, but the resurrection that questions us.

Whence benevolence?  Church.  The church embodies benevolence.

Experience

And from experience.  From life.  A couple of weeks ago I heard this sentence:  ‘Love is benevolence or good will to others…the disposition which one has who desires and delights in the good of another’.   I preached it, quoting J Edwards.  But, by ricochet, I also heard it.  In my own experience.   You will not find benevolence apart from benevolence.  You will not experience benevolence apart from benevolent people.

Here is the weight of Paul’s letter.  In the names, the people, his predecessors.  And in the verb, OPHTHEY, ‘appeared’.   Mark this.  Resurrection happens inside this world not outside this world.  The absence of the empty tomb and the presence of the Living Appearance both, by Paul anyway, happen here.  Paul’s argument is to his context, his community, wherein there is difference, disagreement and doubt.  We are not the first, come Easter, to know these masters of disillusionment.

Paul sings Resurrection in Life!

A few years ago a neighboring minister, highly effective in his work, came to say that he had gone through several cycles of goals in pastoral work and preaching, but that now he was not going to set any more of his own, and not going to try to achieve any more of his own.  He said:  I decided I would go and work on someone else’s.  He asked if there was anything he could do for me.  I must say that although I did respond, to this day I have not fully responded.  It sort of took my breath away…

I have written enough books.  Let me help you with yours.  I have built enough companies.  Let me help you with yours.  I have earned enough degrees.  Let me help you with yours.  I have had enough jobs.  Let me help you find yours.  I have had enough successes.  Let me help you achieve yours.  I am not fully there yet, not fully benevolent yet, I guess.  It is a different kind of thought, and life.  But I can sure feel the power of it, especially in receipt.  Can’t you?  So Dietrich Bonhoeffer simply said of Jesus:  A Man for others.

Think of someone who has desired, truly desired, and delighted in, genuinely delighted in, your good.    Whoever, and wherever, and however–thence benevolence. Conjure a moment when you truly desired and delighted in the good of another.  At a little league game.  At a concert.  At a wedding.  At a graduation.  In lovemaking.  At a retirement dinner.  In a prayer.  ‘Love is benevolence or good will to others…the disposition which one has who desires and delights in the good of another’.

Benevolence is our path for life following death.

Now deceased—that move across the little comma, the light punctuation separating the independent clause of life from the dependent clause of death—a Colgate and BU grad, then minister in Oriskany Falls,  Russell Clark, offered condolence and asked his friend how she somehow survived her husband’s sudden death.   She said:  Nothing has ever been so hard.  But as you know I have chickens to feed.  When the sun comes up, they get up.  They call to me.  And I get up.  I might want to stay in bed, but they need to be fed.  Their life is really mine, or mine theirs.  Don’t take this the wrong way, Rev. I love my traditions and my church.  But it was the clucking of those hens that got me through.  The clucking of those hens meant more to me than all the hymns of Easter.

Whence benevolence?  Experience.  Experience exemplifies benevolence.

Coda

Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is the marrow of tradition, as the cock  crows.  Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is the very body of the church, as the starlings swirl.  Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is the lived experience of love, as the chickens cluck.  Whence benevolence?  You need hunt no farther.  ‘Love is benevolence or good will to others…the disposition which one has who desires and delights in the good of another’.

Now make a life with that disposition.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.

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

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