Archive for July, 2015

The Beloved Community in a Wild and Crazy World!

Sunday, July 26th, 2015

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Matthew 12:15-21

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The text is not available for this sermon.

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The Beloved Community of a Wild and Crazy God!

Sunday, July 19th, 2015

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Matthew 24:36-44

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The text is not available for this sermon.

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Intimations of a Beloved Community

Sunday, July 12th, 2015

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Mark 6:14-29

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Our gospel is a grim reminder of the prophetic precursor to Jesus, whose own death prefigures the Lord’s.  My friend Jennifer, a celebrated New Testament scholar, once referred to the passage as ‘the only mother and daughter scene in the NT’ a way of sidestepping its bloody horror with a mordant, wry wit, a not unusual reaction to such a gruesome passage.   Mark is foreshadowing the coming cross of Christ, by remembering John the Baptist.

We can do the same.  There are those who at cost have paved the way, affirms our Scripture today.  As we gather in summer worship this morning, here in historic Marsh Chapel, we may take some sustenance from such a reminder, and be inspired to remember those who paved a way for us.  Who stands as a true precursor for your life and faith?  As in these months and weeks, across this great land, a country yet filled with latent goodness, we brood about violence and prejudice, we may take some sustenance from such a direct reminder of the prophetic spirit, truth spoken for love in the face of adversity.  Who risked friendship for the sake of you, as a friend?  As, this summer, we meditate together upon the mighty theme of the Beloved Community, we might recall earlier intimations, prophetic voices, which paved our way, cut our trail, made a space and place in grace for our own hopes.

I have driven to you at dawn this morning along the Mohawk River.  It is the same route John Dempster took on his way to New England to give life to Boston University, in 1839.  Let your mind wander with me, this morning, ‘fifteen miles on the Erie Canal’.  Think back and think west. Think precursors.  This region bears the distinction of having given rise to many women and men who did not leave freedom to somebody else.  Its price of eternal vigilance they provided in very daily, very personal, very local, very immediate ways.  In the same manner by which we take for granted Niagara Falls, so close and so grand, we take these mighty stories for granted, saving stories of freedom and faith.

The Mohawk River, the Erie Canal.  This is the land of Hiawatha (“who causes rivers to run”).  Such musical names adorn this landscape:  Canandaigua, Tioghnioga, Onondaga, Tuscarora, Cuyahoga.  Hiawatha, the great native leader of the Iroquois showed in the 15th century the critical need for union, for space and time in which to live together.  His leadership was focused on common space, on collegial relations, on counsel together, and so he is harbinger of all the examples of faith and freedom to come up along the Mohawk and the Erie Canal.  In nineteenth century verse:

All your strength is in your union

All your weakness in discord

Therefore be at peace henceforward

And as brothers live together

This is the land of Harriet Tubman.  You may want to visit her home in Auburn, NY.  (Her neighbor William Seward, Lincoln’s rival and Secretary of State, also from Auburn, bought Alaska, considered at the time a folly, an “ice-box”.) Tubman’s grand niece, Janet Lauerson, was on my church staff for a time in Syracuse, after we both migrated down from the far north country, not far from the burial place of John Brown.  His body lies moldering under a ski lift near Lake Placid.  He and Gerritt Smith, founder of Peterboro, were not compatiblists regarding slavery.  As Lincoln would later say, they felt those who most affirmed slavery should start by trying it for themselves. Brown, Smith, Seward and others were the chorus before which Tubman could sing out the life of freedom, following the underground railroad.  Remember her wisdom:  “When I found I had crossed that line (on her first escape from slavery, 1845), I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person.  There was such a glory over everything…I started with this idea in my head, ‘There’s two things I’ve got a right to…death or liberty’…’Twant me, ‘twas the Lord.  I always told him, “I trust you.  I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me, and he always did.”

Now that we are as far west as Auburn, you will expect to hear something of Frederick Douglass, buried in Rochester.  His burial plot is across the street from Strong Hospital.  As one patient said, looking through the window, “it gives you something to think about”.  Douglass printed his newspaper, the “North Star”, in Rochester, and through it developed a voice for a new people in a new era.  At Syracuse University, 100 years later, it was Professor Roland Wolseley who developed the first national program in Black Journalism.  Wolseley was formed in the faith under the great preaching of the best Methodist preacher in the 20th century, Ernest Freemont Tittle, when Wolseley’s young wife was Tittle’s secretary. Wolseley was my pastor parish chair for 10 years.  Digressing, for a moment, where the vale of Onondaga meets the eastern sky, you might look in the Carrier Dome at the moving tribute to Ernie Davis, a young man from Elmira, who, a century after Douglass, and in the lifespan of Wolseley, gave tragic, courageous, and lasting embodiment to the common hope of racial justice, harmony and integration.  He also played football.   The voice of Douglass rings out against the harmonic background of Tittle, Wolseley, Davis and others.  In the North Star, Douglass wrote: “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle…If there is no struggle, there is no progress.  Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening.  They want the ocean without the awful roar of its mighty waters.” Or maybe we should give the honor to his ally Sojourner Truth:  “That…man…says women can’t have as many rights as man, cause Christ wasn’t a woman.  Where did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman.  Man had nothing to do with him!”

Susan B. Anthony did not leave the project of freedom to others.  I wonder what sort of dinner companion she might have been.  Her constant consort with governors and senators across the Empire state made her an early Eleanor Roosevelt.  My grandmother grew up in Cooperstown and graduated from Smith College four years before she had the right to vote.  My mother was born in Syracuse only a few years after full suffrage.  My wife is a musician and teacher, my sister is a corporate attorney, many of my closest colleagues in ministry are female.  I scratch my head to imagine a world without their voices.  Syracuse produced Betty Bone Schiess, one of the first women ordained to ministry in the Protestant Episcopal church.  One of the Philadelphia 11.  We study her now in Introduction to Religion.  One rainy day when my daughter Emily was 13 and had the flu, we met Schiess, at the druggist.  The pharmacist called her name.  I clamored over to investigate whether it were she, the famous Schiess.  “Who wants to know?” she replied.  As she left, after good banter, she turned in her slicker and totting an umbrella pronounced this blessing:  “One day you will be a Methodist bishop”.   I was about to reply when I realized she was speaking to Emily.  ‘Thank you’, my daughter replied.  Think about precursors whose prophetic voices and costly faithfulness paved your way.  We may need such a brief reminder, this summer,  that real change is real hard but it comes in real time when real people really work at it.  So.  You may visit the birthplace of suffrage and feminism in Seneca Falls.   Anthony’s witness stands out among the witness of so many others:  your grandmother, your mother, your sister, your wife, your daughter, your pastor, Betty Bone Schiess, and so many others.  Who can forget the motto of Susan B. Anthony: “Failure is impossible” (on her 86th birthday, 1906), or her warning, “Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about reform.  Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation.”

Sometimes the freedom train derailed. Not everything along the Mohawk River was perfect or turned round right.  Exuberance can produce minor collisions. I want to talk to you about sexual experimentation, that is, a long time before the summer of love.  Woodstock paled by comparison with the communal experiments along the Erie Canal during the nineteenth century.   The Shaker Community and the Oneida Community perhaps can bracket our discussion.  Under Mother Ann Lee, and starting in farm country near New Lebanon (Albany area), not far from from Tanglewood, and our BU musical program there, one of the current sponsors for WBUR, the shaking Quakers firmly and unequivocally addressed the matter of sex.  They forbade it.  Like the desert fathers and Qumran communities of old, they took Paul at his word and meditated fully on 1 Corinthians 7, ‘let those who have wives live as if they had none’.  In the Shaker community, women and men came together only once a week, in worship, on Sunday morning, for ecstatic singing and dancing, like David in the ephod before the ark–hence their name, ‘shakers’.  This made church attendance somewhat more than casual liturgical observance.  I understand attendance was quite good.  However, the practice did not amplify the community itself:  infant baptisms lacked the requisite infant, and so were infrequent.  Consequently the Shakers moved to Cleveland where they blended into Sherwood Anderson’s new Ohio, returning to the old ways of industry, monogamy, and frugality.  In short, they became Methodists.   Hear again the Shaker tune:

When true, simplicity is gain

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed

To turn, turn, will be our delight

‘Till by turning, turning, we come round right

Now, the Oneida’s.  You may want to read the book, Without Sin, the best review in our generation of their somewhat different experiment.  Also along the Erie Canal the Oneida community set out to find heaven on earth, the end of all oppressions, and even the hope that, as John H Noyes read from Revelation, “death itself will be no more”.  Although I went to High School in Oneida I do not recall a full lesson on the matter of stirpiculture, the heart of the Oneida experiment. The Oneidas practiced “complex” marriage, in which every man was married to every woman and vice-versa, and sexual relations were freely permitted as long as the men practiced ‘continence’ to avoid pregnancy.  Procreation was planned, through a deliberated, committee processed, but nonetheless free-love sharing of the marriage bed in the hope of producing a better race, a finer human being. (For those of you for whom this is more information than you require, I apologize) Three hundred in number at their greatest growth, the community produced bear traps and then silver, continuing, in some fashion, until just a few years ago.  Of all the utopian experiments, the Oneida project is the most fascinating.  After word got out about the doings and practices in Oneida, clergy in Syracuse banded together and ran them out of town, first to Canada and then to the Midwest.  Noyes died on the trip, and the community disappeared, except in the silver on your dinner table, in wedding gifts, and in quality restaurants.  Let us remember the love of freedom, as Noyes expressed it, even if we cannot affirm his methods: “I am free of sin and in a state of Perfection”.

Precursors remind us of what can be done. Another drum along the Mohawk you will find perhaps an unlikely name to include, that of Norman Vincent Peale. When we were at Union Seminary in New York the faculty there, both regularly and rightly criticized the inadequate theology of the Marble Collegiate Church.  I remember James Sanders sternly referring to this famed congregation as the “First Church of Marduke”, (not an accolade).  Of course you know that for fifty years, a graduate of Boston University, and Ohio Wesleyan, and a proponent of the power of positive thinking held forth, without notes, from the so-called Marduke pulpit.  His son in law, Arthur Caliandro, followed him, with notes.  You may not trust his theology.  I myself am a critic, schooled as I was in the dour, German realism of Tillich, Niehbuhr, and company.  You may find it too shallow.  Everybody has their criticism of Norman Vincent Peale.  Even Adlai Stevenson had gripes.  When attacked from Marduke Stevenson defended his Christianity on the basis of the Apostle to the Gentiles, all this in 1956, and rounded out his peroration thus:  “Sir, I am a Christian.  As such, I find Paul appealing, but Peale, appalling.”  You too may find Paul appealing and Peale appalling.  But hold one thought.  Peale began his preaching a stone’s throw from where my morning drive and this morning’s sermon began, this morning.  In Syracuse, at University Methodist Church.  He found there a happy people.  He found there a positive people.  He found there a hopeful people, an optimistic congregation.  Why, they were so good to him that he relaxed and fell in love and married an SU coed, Ruth.  My old, good friend Forrest Whitmeyer, a graduate of Boston Latin, knew them both well.  It was that native buckeye spirit (Norman) married to that native orange soul (Ruth), and it produced the power of positive thinking, itself a form of faith and freedom not to be entirely forgotten.  A time or two in the course of a full ministry, we might just remember Peale, positively. The Peales, Ruth and Norman both, did not leave the project of freedom to somebody else.  It is biblical and faithful to remember Peale’s seven most important words:  “You can if you think you can.”  Yes, you can.

Intimations of a Beloved Community.  God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Gimself.  The faith of Jesus Christ and the freedom of Jesus Christ we offer you today.  As Paul’s student writing in Ephesians put it:  ‘In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance…so that we might live for the praise of his glory’.  Our forebears were disinclined to leave the pursuit of freedom to others.  They seized freedom in their own hands and by their own lives.  They did not wait on others.  They did not pause to seek a secret blessing.  They did not wait until some ethereal sign emerged.  They did not expect some magic insight.  They preferred deliverance to diffidence.  They glimpsed and then followed after intimations of a beloved community.

In earshot of our Lord’s teaching, in remembrance of the freedom and faith in our shared past, and especially on this Lord’s day, there is no avoiding a very personal question:  as a Christian man or woman, what are you going to do to continue to expand the circle of freedom in our time?  Where is your tribal council to create?  Where is your slavery to escape?  Where is your North Star to publish?  Where is your franchise to find?  Where is your libertinism to avoid?  Where is your hope to share? How will you lift a hand?

And take heart.  Have you watched the dawn come?  This morning I drove due east, along the Mohawk river, into a full black sky, darker than a hundred midnights, down in the cypress swamp.  It seemed forever before there was any light.  But somewhere around 5am, imperceptibly, very gradually, black became dark blue, and dark blue a misty gray, and gray a lightened blue, and blue a bright sun.  Little bit by little bit by little bit.  Dawn came.  Like the glory of the morning on the wave…

All that Mohawk river water falls finally into the ocean, running at the feet of Emma Lazarus’ poem:

Give me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning to breath free

The restless refuse of your teeming shore

Send these, the lost, the tempest tossed to me

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

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

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Contra Ecclesia: Beloved Communities

Sunday, July 5th, 2015

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Mark 6:1-13

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The theme of our summer preacher series this year is “Beloved Community.” Coined by Josiah Royce, the concept of the beloved community was popularized by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While eschewing the utopian vision of Royce, King nevertheless developed his conception of the beloved community out of the idealist philosophy of Boston Personalism in which he was formed here at Boston University.

For King, the beloved community is first and foremost a social reality. The beloved community arises from the personal commitments of individual people to the method of nonviolence enacted socially. As King said, “the aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.” Nonviolence is the means, but “the end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.” The beloved community is spiritual as well as social, “it is the love of God working in the lives of [people].” The beloved community is global, or as King described it, “a great world house in which we have to live together.” And surely it is the cosmic dimension of the beloved community that King had in mind when he quoted Theodore Parker that, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

King fully that this vision of the beloved community would be realized and actualized socially. He was beginning the process of building a late modern sacred canopy in hopes that it would become the societal governing norm, complete with cosmic dimension, over time.

From the vantage point of 2015, some sixty years after King began to popularize the beloved community, it is hard to imagine such a global and universal ethos taking hold. Rather than a single sacred canopy, as Peter Berger himself has acknowledged, what we are experiencing in our pluralistic age is ongoing contestation of our various sacred canopies, or perhaps better, sacred tents. Rather than participating in a singular canopy, we inhabit, in our lives, various tents: the family tent, the work tent, the school tent, the neighborhood tent, the friends tent, and on and on. We inhabit each of these tents differently, fitting our individual uniqueness to the social norms governing each. These tents overlap one another at the intersection of us; that is, we are the locus of overlap for all of the tents we inhabit, even if they would never otherwise intersect and do not regularly have anything to do with one another. The sacred canopy in this sense, then, is much more like the jungle canopy, which exists only after the fact as the limbs of the trees grow to overlap one another organically.

Of course, some of the tents we inhabit are more central to our sense of self and identity than others; they are more important to us than others; they are where we find our deepest sense of belonging. The tent where you find your deepest gladness realized, where you feel you most fully belong, where you experience the greatest freedom, that tent, then, is your beloved community. Rather than a global, universal, cosmic beloved community, these beloved communities are more often intimate, vulnerable, and personal.

Theologically, what King envisioned as the beloved community resonates deeply with what the church aspires to be: global, universal, and mediator of cosmic harmony. The church aspires to be a community of universal love and belonging. It is for this reason that the church all too frequently proclaims itself to be the unique and universal context for salvation.

Alas, in living out the vocation of cultivating universal love and belonging, the church is caught on the horns of a dilemma. In order to achieve what it aspires, that is in order to become truly global and universal, the church must find ways to cope with the many particularities embodied by the human beings it desires to include. In order to do so, the church has two options. First, the church can articulate its canopy in ways so vague and abstract that it can embrace anyone. The problem with this option is that the canopy demands little and so inspires minimal allegiance, and it quickly becomes viewed as superfluous and irrelevant. Second, the church can articulate its canopy in stricter ways and insist that everyone abide by the norms it articulates. The problem with this option is that the demands of the canopy are so oppressive for some, or perhaps many, that escaping the canopy becomes preferable to suffocating under it. In sum, it is sheer hubris to claim that the experience of grace of one person, or even a subset of people, is determinative of what the experience of grace must be for everyone.

Jesus knew something of the challenge of being beloved in community, indeed in the very communities where one might most expect to find love: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” Jesus taught the disciples that they too would find places that could not, or at least would not, be beloved communities for them: “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” The sacred canopy of Jesus’ hometown was no place for him to be beloved; the sacred canopy he offered could not meet everyone where they were.

So too today the church is wrestling precisely on the horns of this dilemma. This has never been exemplified more clearly than in the response of too much of the church to the recent US Supreme Court decision finding a constitutional right for gay and lesbian people to marry. Many churches are experiencing that the strict ways they have articulated their sacred canopies with respect to marriage are increasingly intolerable conditions for many people to inhabit. These same churches accuse the churches that have embraced gay marriage of being “wishy washy,” that is, of demanding so little that they are becoming irrelevant.

Sadly, many of these churches that take themselves to be the ultimate context of salvation have forgotten that the very terms of that salvation are their own interpretation of what God is doing. Of course, this forgetting that the sacred canopy is our own construction is precisely one of the movements of its construction that Peter Berger describes. The problem is that in forgetting we come to confuse our own human institutions with the will of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that “the serious Christian, set down for the first time in Christian community, is likely to bring with them a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.”

Just as Saint Paul thought that he knew what he needed and what would be best for him, so too we must learn once again to rely more firmly on God’s grace: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities of disabled persons and those who accompany them, reminds us that, “community is a terrible place, a place where our limitations and egoisms are revealed to us. When we begin to live full time with others we discover our poverty and our weakness, our inability to get on with others… our mental and emotional blocks; our affective and sexual disturbances, our frustrations and jealousies… and our hatred and desire to destroy.” Beloved community is not easy, but it is precisely by moving together through these weaknesses that the power of the beloved community is perfected.

The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that God is at work inspiring, encouraging, and nurturing beloved communities. Everyone deserves a beloved community. This is the gospel message that Justice Kennedy articulated in Obergefell v. Hodges: “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.” Even when the church is unwilling to be and become a beloved community, and even when the church is unwilling to acknowledge the beloved community that folks are building together, the government must acknowledge and nurture and foster these beloved communities.

This is a challenging gospel for the church to hear: First, not everyone will find their beloved community in the church. The grace of God is at work outside the church, and often as not in spite of the church. Claims to the contrary are mere hubris, but God’s grace is sufficient because power is made perfect in weakness. Second, the grace of God is nurturing beloved communities, not beloved community. The experience of being beloved cannot be fostered in monolithic, universal, totalizing sacred canopies. Instead we need intimate tents where vulnerability and weakness may be cultivated in contexts of trust and security, because it is in weakness that power is made perfect. The church must repent of the sin of claiming that grace for one is grace for all.

Let me be clear, not all beloved communities are healthy. Dyllan Roof, the accused racist terrorist who killed nine members of a bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last month, was nurtured in a community to feel beloved precisely by rejecting the humanity and personhood of black people. This orientation is not unrelated to his experience in church. Unequivocally, this is a perversion of what it means to be beloved. There is no grace here.

The President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, calls us to return to the gospel of grace: “According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace — as a nation out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He’s given us the chance where we’ve been lost to find our best selves. We may not have earned this grace with our rancor and complacency and shortsightedness and fear of each other, but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.”

Today we gather at the table of grace to receive the grace of God whose own weakness was made absolute, and thus whose power is perfected, in the crucifixion and death of Jesus. What will you do with this grace? Go out, take nothing for your journey, and build beloved communities. Build family communities of intimacy, love, and mutual support. Build work communities of imagination, dedication, and collaboration. Build school communities of learning, virtue, and piety. Inhabit all of the communities in which you find belonging and are beloved with grace, that is, in weakness, that your power may be perfected. And may the grace of God empower you to serve as the point of intersection among these communities such that love and justice may flourish. Amen.

–Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, University Chaplain for Community Life, Boston University

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