Archive for December, 2015

A New Year Outlook

Sunday, December 27th, 2015

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 2:41-52

Click here to listen to the sermon only

About ten years ago, a friend of mine and I spent Saturday afternoons, winter and spring 2006, visiting members of our church.  He drove, I navigated, we sipped Diet Dr. Pepper.  We used a map.  We went to call on church members who had not yet had the opportunity to make a pledge to our capital campaign.  The building it supported was mostly up, the pledges were mostly in, but we lacked a certain percentage.  The trustees, being trustees, along with the rest of us, rightly wanted to see 100% completion and participation.  All manner of mailings, some e-mailings, pulpit appeals, and phone calling were to no avail. So, we went out in the eastern suburbs of Monroe County NY, to make some doorstep, unannounced, cold call home visits.  

I remember beautiful homes, and young families, and happy greetings, and a real willingness to listen, and a desire to give. After all, these young families would most benefit from the investment other generations were making in their future.  I also remember asking my friend and driver Bob why some of these homes, large and lovely, apparently had little or no furniture.  He could give the price of the homes, close to market, about 1/3 the cost of similar property in eastern New England.  This impressed me.  But, I asked, where is the furniture?  Well, he tried to explain, some of these families have taken out as much mortgage as they could, knowing (he raised an eye brow), knowing that the value would continue to go up, and up. It was generally understood to be the wise, prudent thing to do, though, of course, it was a matter of interpretation. They would get the furniture next year.  

The memories flooded in while we watched recently the film THE BIG SHORT.  Now I see.  Now I see what I saw but I had no full way to see what I saw or fully to interpret what I saw, almost 10 years ago. How you see depends on how you interpret what you see.  Just over the horizon from winter 2006 there was about to be a great collapse, as we all now know and ruefully remember. We are still finding our interpretative way into understanding all that happened.  I can see now, pretty clearly, what Bob I think suspected, but did not say.  Our friends were truly very ready to give, but they at that point had no means to do so.  

Interpretation matters.  Two days after Christmas, and the feast of our Lord’s birth, and one day after the feast of Stephen, and remembrance of his death as the first Christian martyr, perhaps we could pause, step back, and look, as he have now and then before, at our mode of interpretation.  Not of markets and economics today, but of truth, of faith, of Gospel, of life. We take a New Year outlook.  As we pray together in the New Year, what will be our outlook?  As Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, at least as Luke reports, what shall our own outlook toward wisdom be, not 2006, but 2016?

Errancy

To begin. Your love for Christ shapes your love of Scripture.  You love the Bible.  You love its psalmic depths.  #130 comes to mind. You love its stories and their strange turns.  Samuel comes to mind.  You love proverbial wisdom.  ‘One person sharpens another like iron sharpens iron’ comes to mind. You love its freedom, its account of the career of freedom.  The exodus comes to mind. You love its memory of Jesus.  His growing in stature today comes to mind. You love its honesty about religious life.  Galatians comes to mind.  You love its strangeness.  John comes to mind.  You love the Bible, enough to know it through and through.

You rely on the Holy Scripture to learn to speak of faith, and as a medium of truth for the practice of faith.  Around our common table today in worship, we share this reliance and this love.  The fascinating multiplicity of hearings, here, and the interplay of congregations present, absent, near, far, known, unknown, religious and unreligious, have a common ground in regard for the Scripture. A preacher descending into her automobile in Boston, after an earlier service, listens to this service to hear the interpretation of the gospel.  A homebound woman in Newton listens for the musical offerings, as in today’s duets, and for the reading of scripture.  On the other side of the globe, a student listens in, come Sunday, out of a love of Christ that embraces a love of Scripture.  Here in the Chapel nave, on the Lord’s Day, scholars and teachers and students have in common, by your love for Christ, a love for the Scripture, too.  The B I B L E, yes that,s the book for me.  In this way, we may all affirm Mr. Wesley’s motto:  homo unius libri, to be a person of one book.

But the Bible has a story, too, as James Sanders used to say.  And at points, it is errant.  Not inerrant, but errant.  It is theologically tempting for us to go on preaching as if the last 250 years of study just did not happen.  They did.  That does not mean that we should deconstruct the Bible to avoid allowing the Bible to deconstruct us, or that we should study the Bible in order to avoid allowing the Bible to study us.  In fact, after demythologizing the Bible we may need to re-mythologize the Bible too.  It is the confidence born of obedience, not some certainty born of fear that will open the Bible to us.  We need not fear truth, however it may be known.  So Luke may not have had all his geographical details straight.  John includes the woman caught in adultery, but not in its earliest manuscripts.  Actually she, poor woman, is found at the end of Luke in some texts.  Paul did not write the document from the earlier third century, 3 Corinthians. The references to slavery in the New Testament are as errant and time bound as are the references to women not speaking in church.  The references to women not speaking in church are as errant and time bound as are the references to homosexuality.  The references to homosexuality are as errant and time bound as are the multiple lists of the twelve disciples.  The various twelve listings are as errant and time bound as the variations between John and the other Gospels.

The Marsh pulpit, and others like it, are not within traditions which affirm the Scripture as the sole source of religious authority.  We do not live within a Sola Scriptura tradition.  The Bible is primary, foundational, fundamental, basic, prototypical—but not exclusively authoritative.  Today’s passage from Luke 2 is an idealized memory. of something that may or may not have happened in the way accounted.  It looks back sixty years. It is formed in the faith of the church to form the faith of the church.

If I were teaching a Sunday School class this winter I might buy the class copies of Throckmorton’s Gospel parallels and read it with them.

Equality

You love the tradition of the church as well.  Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed…John Wesley loved the church’s tradition too, enough to study it and to know it, and to seek its truth.  The central ecclesiastical tradition of his time, the tradition of apostolic succession, he termed a ‘fable’.  Likewise, we lovers of the church tradition will not be able to grasp for certainty in it, if that grasping dehumanizes others.  The Sabbath was made for the human being, not the other way around, in our tradition.  

For instance, the linkage of the gifts of heterosexuality and ministry, however traditional, falls below and falls before the Gospel of grace and freedom.  In Methodism, 2016, the church’s own tradition, the very preaching of the gospel itself, and the rendering of theological truth–well before any moral, or ethical, or societal debate—includes the full affirmation of the full humanity of gay people.  Tradition expands to make way for the gospel.  So, over time, equality triumphs over exclusion.  It is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave…

If I were convening a spring study I would have the group re-read Walter Wink’s old little pamphlet The Bible and Homosexuality for some perspective on tradition and scripture and  change.

Evolution

You love the mind, the reason.  You love the prospect of learning.  You love the life of the mind.  You love the Lord with heart and soul and mind.  A mind is a terrible thing to waste. You love the reason in the same that Charles Darwin, a good Anglican, loved the reason.  You love its capacity to see things, and to grow in wisdom and stature, as Jesus did, according to our gospel today..

A word of caution is in order.  Reason unfettered can produce hatred and holocaust.  Learning for its own sake needs virtue and piety (repeat).  More than anything else, learning, to last, must finally be rooted in loving.   Jesus grew, in Luke 2.  The more he learned, the more he taught.  He embodies inquiry for us today.  Inquiry!

The universe is 15 billion years old.  The earth is 4.5 billion years old. 500 million years ago multi-celled organisms appeared in the Cambrian explosion.  400 million years ago plants sprouted.  370 million years ago land animals emerged.  230 million years ago dinosaurs appeared (and disappeared 65 million years ago).  200,000 years ago hominids arose.  Every human being carries 60 new mutations out of 6 billion cells.  Yes, evolution through natural selection by random mutation is a reasonable hypothesis, says F Collins, father of the human genome project, and, strikingly, a person of faith.

I might have my fellowship group re-read this New Year Francis Collins, the Language of God.  He can teach us to reason together.  

It is tempting to disjoin learning and vital piety, but it is not loving to disjoin learning and vital piety.  They go together.  The God of Creation is the very God of Redemption.  Their disjunction may help us cling for a while to a kind of faux certainty.  But their conjunction is the confidence born of obedience.  In the end, falsehood has no defense and truth needs none.  Nothing human is foreign to us.

Existence

You love experience.  The gift of experience in faith is the heart of your love of Christ.  You love Christ. Like Howard Thurman loved the mystical ranges of experience, you do too.  Samuel, in looking forward, expects to learn from experience, and joyful experience at that. We know joy.  Joy seizes us.  Joy grasps us when we are busy grasping at other things.  You love what we are given morning and evening.

You love experience more than enough to examine your experience, to think about and think through what you have seen and done.

Sometimes, after a decade, looking into and upon experience, we can see things better.  Our failures teach us, both as individuals, and in community.  We learn in our experience the happiness and centrality of giving (yes, there is a year end stewardship nudge here (☺)).  We learn also that, you know, you can do too much for people sometimes.  That is part of the limit purpose of the tithe (yes, again, there is a year end notion at play here (☺)).  

You can trust your experience.  That is part of the meaning of Incarnation.  From a friend, this week, came a gift that sings love of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience, rightly interpreted, in the voice of one Cardinal John Francis Dearden of Detroit, and quoted in Pope Francis’ very recent Christmas message.  Dearden’s prayer sings out the song of incarnate love.  His is our last word today, as we take a New Year outlook, and remember that interpretation matters:

Every now and then it helps us to take a step back

and to see things from a distance.

The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is also beyond our visions.

In our lives, we manage to achieve only a small part

of the marvellous plan that is God’s work.

Nothing that we do is complete,

which is to say that the Kingdom is greater than ourselves.

No statement says everything that can be said.

No prayer completely expresses the faith.

No Creed brings perfection.

No pastoral visit solves every problem.

No programme fully accomplishes the mission of the Church.

No goal or purpose ever reaches completion.

This is what it is about:

We plant seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted,

knowing that others will watch over them.

We lay the foundations of something that will develop.

We add the yeast which will multiply our possibilities.

We cannot do everything,

yet it is liberating to begin.

This gives us the strength to do something and to do it well.

It may remain incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way.

It is an opportunity for the grace of God to enter

and to do the rest.

It may be that we will never see its completion,

but that is the difference between the master and the labourer.

We are labourers, not master builders,

servants, not the Messiah.

We are prophets of a future that does not belong to us.

Hear the gospel, you prophets of a future that does not belong to you! And, Happy New Year.

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Doubt and Faith at Christmas

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 1:39-45

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Overture

He is the Way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth. Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life. Love him in the World of the Flesh: and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy. (Auden)

There are two shades of Christmas and both are blessed.  

The search for truth and the gift of grace are both blessed.  Elisabeth and Mary; John and Jesus; the true and the good; both and all are blessed, in Luke’s Gospel, by God’s healing of the world in Christ, who is both holy and lowly.

There are two trails to Christmas.  That of doubt, and that of faith.

In this morning’s Gospel, following earlier separate scenes, the two stories come together—John and Jesus, Prophet and Pastor, Doubt and Faith, two sorts of Christmas—John soon to be out by the river, Jesus soon to be in his Father’s house.

At a recent Christmas party a soon to graduate theological student talked about returning to her home in the south central part of the country, and her impending interview before her board of ministry.  What will they ask you?  About the documentary hypothesis, or the second aorist, or the synoptic problem, or the teleological suspension of the ethical, or the art of preaching?  No, they will ask me “Why did you go to Boston?”  Her reply might be:  ‘Because at Boston University I can search for truth and affirm God’s grace, I can combine the necessity of doubt with the promise of faith’.  Hers would be a Christmas answer.  Lord I believe, help my unbelief.

Evidence?  Spiritual things?  Truth? Grace?  Doubt? Faith?

  1. Christmas Doubt

First, doubt.  One dimension of Christmas begins with the search for truth, and, therefore, with the real experience of doubt.  For today, then, a full look at violence, greed and silence.

Facts are stubborn things.  Take a hike with me, down by the river. One Christmas Sunday, late modern or post-Christian, commences at the river, let us say at the head of the Charles.  A riverfront Christmas, for which John the Baptist was given lung and voice, that perhaps of the cultural congregation, even late modern and post-Christian, listens in the dark for the truth.  On the radio, say?  

  1. Violence

A pause at the Charles.  To begin.

The world looks nothing like Christmas.  

We are so anxious and fearful of what has become of our fragile planet that we burrow into feverish work, feverish drink, feverish sex, feverish exchange—getting and spending.  No, come this Christmas Sunday, one does not see the Word made flesh fully abroad.  And lurking down deep in the psyche, and the collective unconscious is the worried fear, the prospect of single nuclear weapon, somewhere, somehow, in the wrong, violent hand.

That sort of anxiety makes even strong people inclined toward demagoguery, belittling, bullying simplicity, in the rhetoric of culture, politics, religion, and life.  That anxiety makes us forget the importance of institutions, and the health, and the well-being and the care of institutions—whether a marriage, a family, a business, a college, a company, or a country.  Process matters.  Due process matters, greatly.  Proven experience counts.  Excellent proven experience counts, greatly.  Mocking the institution one aspires to lead does real damage.  ‘A successful campaign against nihilism will have to resist nihilism itself’. (NYRB, 12/15).  It will be a shame if it takes the current generation of twenty-somethings half a lifetime to learn this.  (As apparently it has taken their parents.)  Traction in history requires institutions, and they require leadership that speaks with honest transparency, builds genial trust, and thereby waters the earth with goodwill, goodwill, goodwill (a Lukan Christmas term) in institutional form.

Or look again at the United States of America, anno domini 2015.  Ferguson, Staten Island, Charleston, Cleveland, Baltimore, Colorado Springs, San Bernardino.  Ours is an age drenched in violence.  Ours is a culture steeped in violence.  And ours is a country born in violence.  Not the violence of the first setters, only, nor the violence of the revolution, mainly.  Whence American taste for violence and its home ownership of 300,000,000 guns?  We cut our teeth on the violence of slavery.  Racism and gun violence are our tragic twins in this land.  We learned the need of violence—how?  4 million people don’t choose to stay in leg irons on their own.  They have to be kept there.  And how?  Violence.  The violence of the whip, of the lash, of the pistol, of the rifle, of the hound, of the lynching tree, and of ways of justifying, speaking of the reasonable need for, such violence.   While you never or hardly ever hear it, gun violence and racism go hand in hand, twins, the ghostly daughters of our birth as a country.  Read Faulkner or Genesis.  This violent world looks nothing like Christmas.

  1. Greed

A pause along the Esplanade, say at the Arthur Fiedler statue. To continue.  A place to honor music, the height of the invisible.  It is a good thing that Arthur is so sturdy, for the ‘invisible’ faces steady headwinds and even cross winds in our time. The pervasive materialism, endless exurban expansion, and mindless consumption of a people hurtling down a highway focused on the speedometer and blind to the road ahead, are a long way from Christmas.  From every corner we are encouraged to shop.  To buy!  But… to give?  Both would strengthen the economy, but in different ways.  One leans toward commodity and the other toward community.  It may be, one thinks, along the river, that Immanuel—the college, or the doctrine, or the hope—have gone, left for a far country.  As Vahanian said of ‘God’ 50 years ago, the symbols of faith have grown cold for the culture.  Has such a fate of symbolic anachronism now permanently infected Christmas?  Is the whole symbol set, from angels to straw and all between, become, simply, a once told tale?  We know that symbols die.  Sometimes from neglect, sometimes from abuse, sometimes from both.  It is hard to find evidence that the poor manger has much traction to shape a culture any longer.  Whither wonder, morality, generosity? Greed is a long way from Christmas.

  1. Silence

A pause at the Concert Shell.  To listen.  Here is my friend awash in grief for the tragic and inexplicable loss of a spouse.  Here is he, years later, still caught in the flow and ebb of that sorrow beyond sorrow.  It is an empty time for this concert stage, and its empty loss, and lack, is one that many know better than any other truth.  To hear the improbable predictions of Isaiah, about streams in a desert, is to this ear, just now, at the shoreline of the absurd.

When to the heart of man

Was it ever less than a treason

To go with the drift of things

And to yield with a grace to reason

And to bow and accept the end

Of a love or a season? (Frost)

And from the hurt comes doubt. Having in the churches exchanged much of our capacity in philosophical theology for a saltier but lighter mix of personal narratives and identity politics, we find ourselves scrambling a bit to respond to first level questions about evidence, about suffering, about creation, about content, about God.  Like the earliest Christians, thinkers today do not fear the charge of a-theism.  Nor should they. The search for truth, by the presence of John the Baptist, down by the river is blessed at Christmas.  Nihil humanum:  nothing human is foreign to us.

Emptiness unabated is a long way from Christmas.

Here then is one Christmas trail and tale:  a search for truth and an experience of doubt. The honesty and the courage of this account need naming:  violence, greed, silence.

(Reflexion)

Although… A pause, perhaps now at night, with the light shimmering on the Charles, to wonder…

In your doubt.  Just how sure are you?  In the moonlight, with a shimmering.  Lights and a light wind and the faint call of carolers.  And…Other?  Mystery?  Spirit?  The Luminous Numinous?  A little faith tracks the trail of every doubt, and sometimes, come Christmas, even causes us to doubt our doubt.

All along the river of doubt there is a shimmering something alongside…  Mystery.  Being.  Spirit.  All the cultured doubt of a late modern, post Christian culture, still, does not erase what is just beyond saying, knowing, and hearing.  Doubt is shadowed by faith.

  1. Christmas Faith

Second, faith. Another sort of Christmas begins with the gift of faith.  A full hearing for wonder, and care, and peace.

Your Christmas trail may be ecclesiastical and not cultural, indoors and not outdoors, by candlelight and not moonlight.

You may be a cradle Christian at Christmas, or a cradle Christmas Christian.  Then your trail would move not along the river, but along the rail.

  1. Wonder (in the Silence)

A pause at the Gospel, in church.  To think.  Now inside, not outside.  Now at the rail, not at the river.  Now with Mary and Jesus, though hearing still Elizabeth and John.

All failure, folly and horror bracketed, for the moment, there is the start of this trail in carols of the English tradition, and in candles to evoke the numinous, and in word and sacrament to mirror heaven. Every year, come Christmas Eve, as at no other time of year, there is an awareness of lasting life.  The world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder, as Chesterton never tired of saying.  It is the imagination, that quality of heart and mind so necessary to being human, which quickens again, here at the rail.  Step ahead, just a moment, as sometimes we do, to read the Gospel, moving the page itself into the heart of the church.

Wonder still appears on the candlelit faces uplifted at midnight worship.  Good deeds, selfless and real, emanate still from hearts, homes, and communities of faith.  Generosity, both of spirit and of wallet, emerges again in December.  My Jewish friend’s daughter, steady and staunch in her own faith, nonetheless just loves to go to her neighbor’s house to decorate the Christmas tree:  lights, ornaments, tinsel, all.

Now the passage read from Luke for this Sunday prepares us for the very birth of Christ.  Here is Elizabeth, the mother of the one on the river, and Mary, the mother of the one at the rail.  There are two kinds of Christmas, that of John and that of Jesus, both blessed.  One in the cold light of reason, and one in the warm heart of love.  Both are good, both needed.   Even in utero, according to this Lukan narration, John the Baptist is aware of, we might say prophetically aware of, the unborn Messiah.  But there is a palpable portent of possibility shot through all of this strange reading. We shall honor by acceptance its strange, numinous portent, pregnant with potential for the future.  The Gospel creates its own audience, in the audience of its announcement. Grace renders a sense of imagination, that quiet surrender of the self to the spirit of God.  

  1. Care (amid greed)

A pause at the lesson.  To continue.

The earlier prophecy from Micah recalled David, born in Bethlehem, and was taken by primitive Christianity as a prediction of the Christ.  The whole of the book of Micah realistically portrays the limits of human goodness.  And yet, the image of the shepherd stays with us, and stands out.  Many of our churches are over programmed and under pastored.   A shepherd leads by example.  Here is care:  in the giving of money.  Here is care:  in taking the cloak as well, and going the second mile.  Here is care:  waking in the morning with hope, and praying into the night with hope.  Here is care:  investing in what can cross the bridges of difference.  Here is care:  the ability to see one’s own hurt and suffering, to some degree, as part of a larger labor pain, the birth of the future.

  1. Peace (in a time of Violence)

A pause, too, at the Epistle, the letter to the Hebrews, and its early portent, even at Christmas, of the sorrow and struggle to come. To conclude. Suffering produces endurance.  But God, in Christ, has acted to heal and cleanse.  In faith, we have a way forward, even in the face of other ways forward that do not seem to go forward.  Every day we can live a changed life.  Peace come through peace makers.

In our own lives let us, in faith, eschew any first strikes, on the cheek, or on the character, or on the person.

In our own lives let us eschew any self-full, unilateral action that is not cognizant of circumstance.

In our own lives let us free ourselves, personally, from acting in overweening ways, in ways that use people and love things, rather than loving things and using people (Augustine).

In our own lives let us learn patiently to plan, to foresee, with forbearance, and so practice Niebuhr’s ‘spiritual discipline against resentment’.

Here is a Christmas faith.  In church, gospel, lesson and letter, we may surely affirm the gifts of faith at Christmas:  wonder in silence, care amid greed, peace in a time of violence.

(‘Reflexion’)

And yet.  Lest faith curdle to blind faith, and the gift of faith into the  wrapping of fideism, we may take the test of reason, a pinch of doubt, with us too.  ‘Test the spirits’, says the Scripture (1 Thess. 5: 22). While Luke surely means to place Jesus above John (cf. R Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 333ff.), and that without a doubt, Luke nonetheless makes full space for both kinds of Christmas.

Coda

There are two shades of Christmas.  One of Elizabeth and one of Mary, one of John and one of Jesus, one of river, and one of rail. Yours may be one tinged by faith, though full of doubt.  Yours may be one tinged by doubt, though robust in faith.  Both are blessed, both the true and the good.

We might add, though, if your Christmas is of the indoor variety, take a walk in the moonlight; and if your Christmas is of the outdoor variety, come in to the beauty of the sanctuary at night.  It takes a poet to get this middle voice, this reflexive, this nuanced announcement in the right key.  So, Auden:

He is the Way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth. Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life. Love him in the World of the Flesh: and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

-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.

A Life of Prayer

Sunday, December 6th, 2015

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 3:1-6

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Precursor

Prayer is a precursor.   Prayer is a precursor to learning, doing, and being.  The life of prayer prepares the future’s way.  Precursors have powerful influence.

A couple of weeks ago we were invited back to the Cornell community, Ithaca NY, with whom we were in ministry 35 years ago.  The church there celebrated their 100th birthday, the anniversary of a community whose preachers had included John R Mott, some future deans and presidents of various schools, the husband of Pearl Buck, a former Cornell Sage Chapel Dean, and others.  Sometimes they got saddled with inexperienced young pastors, as well.  

This community, called the Forest Home Chapel, in Ithaca, models one future route for northern and extended northern Methodism, in three dimensions.  The church is liberal, a reconciling congregation, something of a given, given its history.  The church is well led, and prizes ministerial excellence with strong preaching, now offered by the Rev. Rebecca Dolch, a preacher of the first water.  The church is low overhead—no debt, modest building, adequate manse, and voluminous volunteer activity.  Theirs is the future–escaping fundamentalism, poor un-ordained leadership, and old, creaking, massive building structure.  In fact, they are a precursor, one route, one model for what will remain in the northeast in our tradition.

After the service, about 100 of us enjoyed a meal and memories.  Jan remembered serving as an interim director of the Nursery School there, for which three mornings her husband had childcare responsibilities.  He would sometimes show up, she recalled, coming over from the parsonage next door, and asking ‘what do I do now?’

As happens, that memory triggered the following:  here in Marsh Chapel, Boston, in 2010, I received a phone call from the New York Times.  That is not a daily occurrence.  ‘Were you the minister in Ithaca in 1980?’  Who wants to know, I asked.  ‘Was there a child care program in your church?’  I referred the reporter to the response given moments before.  ‘We have a senatorial candidate, a republican in Illinois, a Cornell graduate, who claims a background in early childhood education, and when pressed identified the program in your church as his employer.  The current director looked through records and found no evidence, but gave us your name’.  I will be sure to thank her, I replied.  ‘But what did you say was the candidate’s name?’  Mark Kirk.  I could give no evidence against or for his employment there, ‘possible but not likely’ I said in response.  So my sole offering, to date, to the New York Times, is the fairly lame phrase ‘possible but not likely’ or something similar.  (☺)

This week you learned of a vote on gun control in the US Senate in which just one, just one member of Senator Kirk’s party crossed the line to vote to strengthen gun controls.  That was Senator Mark Kirk himself.  I can imagine that his choice took some courage.  In that, he is precursor.  A precursor goes ahead, and has powerful influence on the future.  Kirk is one.  Maybe that Cornell education moved him.  Maybe he did work with kids in the church basement.  Maybe he heard something, inside or outside of worship, which stayed with him.  Maybe he remembered the primary precursor to the gospel, John the Baptist.

Lukan Baptist

Dressed in camel’s hair, with a diet of locusts and honey (though Luke omits to dress and feed him as Mark so does), John the Baptist is the precursor to Jesus.  You cannot get to Christmas without Advent.  You cannot come to Bethlehem except by way of the Jordan.  You cannot celebrate grace without hearing first the prophetic voice (though it is also good to be reminded that the prophetic is a part of the gospel but not the heart of the gospel (repeat)).  Every year, right now, the Baptist, out in the dark cold miserable mud-soaked Jordan River, stops us.  He stops you.  He says the one prayerful word of the precursor, the prophetic word: ‘Prepare’.  Then he calls the whole people to prayer:  to repentance for pervasive sin; to acceptance of pardon as the way out of evil and hurt; to assurance of grace.

Prayer is what comes before the rest, like Sunday morning is meant to come before the rest (of the week).  Are you getting off on the right foot week by week?

John the Baptist would want to know.  Look carefully at what Luke says about him.  See the Lukan Baptist, different from John the Baptist in Mark.   Mark, 20 years before, begins his gospel with the Baptist.  The gospel opens, ‘the voice of one…’  Not Luke.  Luke wants John put in particular context, 20 years later.  

(We want to hear the gospel in the gospels.  Luke says something different from what he borrowed out of Mark.  That should give us confidence, as we preach, to take the gospel in hand, and apply it to our own condition, our own time, as, well, the first gospel writers all did.)

So, Luke has a history that precedes the precursor.  This history, an orderly one, tells of the conjoint mysterious births of John and Jesus.  This history, an orderly one, gives singing voice to Zechariah (whose psalm we used today) and Mary (two weeks hence).  This history, an orderly one, acknowledges the days of Caesar Augustus and Quirinius.  This history, an orderly one, honors Joseph, and paints like El Greco shepherds in the firelight of the ‘smoking cradle’ (Barth).  This history, an orderly one, makes a little space for the childhood of Jesus, in woe and weal both, circumcision, presentation, growth in wisdom, and temple teaching.  Then, only, does Luke allow the Baptist to appear.  But even here, it is the orderly history that prevails: 15 years, Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod and Philip, unpronounceable regions,  eminently forgettable tetrarchs and priesthoods (‘a six-fold synchronism’, as Bultmann wryly remarks (HST, 362)).   Luke is making sure Jesus has his feet firmly planted in history, both of secular Empire and sacred Temple and an orderly history at that.   So, for us, our engagement with history, under the influence of the Gospel of Luke, matters, counts, lasts, is lastingly real.  More on this in a moment.

Prayer as Precursor

Our year at Marsh Chapel is given over to the theme of prayer, to the life of prayer, and we have spoken about what prayer is, and is meant to be for us.  But in the crusty spirit of the prophetic Baptist here in Luke, we might also want bluntly to say what prayer is not.  Prayer is not a substitute for work.  Prayer is not magic.  Prayer is not mindless, not rote or impersonal.  Prayer is a precursor to work, which shapes the worker, and makes work personal.  Prayer has the power, the influence of the precursor, like John the Baptist, out in the cold river mud.

Our Boston University Personalist Borden Parker Bowne wrote (in 1910!) as our friend Mark Davies reminded us this month,

There is a fancy that prayer alone is the great instrument of success.  This overlooks the true nature of prayer, and also the conditional form of human progress.  In all matters which God has made to depend on human action, that is not prayer, but irreverent impertinence, which pours itself out in verbal petition while neglecting to use the means which lie in our power.  To appoint a day of fasting and prayer to ward of cholera, while allowing the streets and houses and water-supply to reek with filth and all manner of insanitary abomination, would be more like blasphemy than prayer.  A farmer, lying on his back in the shade, while his fields remain unplowed and unsown, cannot truly pray for harvest.  In all cases where our activity is demanded works is a necessary part of prayer, or rather it is the form which true prayer necessarily takes one…Heaven’s ear is deaf to easy verbal petitions.  It is not until the whole soul is engaged that we can be said to pray.  Prayer in its purest essence is found in all action toward the desired object.  It is the pouring out of the whole soul, not only in word, but in act as well, for the attainment of what we seek (Bowne, The Essence of Religion)

Prayer is not a substitute for work.

Likewise, Paul Tillich wrote (in 1960!), as our congregant Dr. Kris Kahle in New Haven Connecticut reminded us this fall,

God’s directing creativity is the answer to the question of the meaning of prayer, especially prayers of supplication and prayers of intercession.  Neither type of prayer can mean that God is expected to acquiesce in interfering with existential conditions.  Both mean that God is asked to direct the given situation toward fulfillment.  The prayers are an element in this situation, a most powerful factor if they are true prayers.  As an element in the situation a prayer is a condition of God’s directing creativity, but the form of this creativity may be the complete rejection of the manifest content of the prayer.  Nevertheless, the prayer may have been heard according to its hidden content, which is the surrender of a fragment of existence to God.  This hidden content is always decisive.  It is the element in the situation which is used by God’s directing creativity.  Every serious prayer contains power, not because of the intensity of desire expressed in it, but because of the faith the person has in God’s directing activity—a faith which transforms the existential situation (P Tillich, Systematic Theology, loc. cit.).

Prayer is not a magical contradiction of the laws of nature or the movement of history.

Likewise, three days ago in this sanctuary we celebrated the life of Professor Abner Eliezer Shimony of Boston University.  He had been both a Professor of Physics and a Professor of Philosophy.  My, oh my! The music and memories of the day reflected a life of prayer, of mindfulness, embracing both physics and metaphysics, evoked these words from and about him:

Ideas matter and there is a deep beauty in pursuing them…The sense of wonder is the basis of learning…With Thucydides we need to ‘restore the sacred olive groves’…He worked both toward a peaceful coexistence of quantum mechanics and special relativity, and toward an understanding of the deepest secrets of the universe, to enhance a sense of wonder about the world, and sensitivity to the facts of the world.  Einstein and Whithead, science and spirit.

And a sense of humor:  ‘the reasons for studying Latin are many and good—but not easy to remember’ (☺).

Prayer is not mindless.

Prayer is not a substitute for work.  Prayer is not magic.  Prayer is not mindless.  Prayer is a precursor to work, which shapes the worker, and makes the worker mindful.  Prayer has the power, the influence of the precursor, like John the Baptist, out in the cold river mud.  I ask you, seriously and respectfully:  is yours a life of prayer? Do you let the waking hour be a waking hour, a prayerful precursor to the work ahead? Do you let Sunday be Sunday, a prayerful precursor to the work ahead?  Do you let Advent be Advent, a prayerful precursor to the work ahead?

Today

It is in this spirit that Paul can write, ‘I am confident of this, that he would began a good work among you will bring it to completion’.  His words, prayerful words, are themselves precursors.   We come to church this morning drenched in sorrows, in the wake of terror east and west, Paris and California, and elsewhere.  We wonder how in the world honestly to face religious extremism and fully to stand beside our brothers and sisters of different faiths.  Some of us will gather tomorrow night at 6pm in the GSU to address just this issue.  We wonder how in the world to keep moving forward toward a public health cure for gun violence, when so little forward motion seems to occur, and the same blank stares and empty phrases follow yet another sordid, evil, awful slaughter.  Some of us will gather Wednesday evening at 7:30pm on December 9 at First Church Boston on Marlborough Street to address just this issue.   Nor are these the only issues of our time.  

In the gospel, we remain hopeful.  Real change is real hard but it happens in real time when people really work at it.  This is Paul’s commonwealth of the gospel, partnership of the gospel—weakly rendered in our NRSV as ‘sharing’.  My goodness.  ‘Sharing’  ‘Sharing’ is not the half of it.  It is Work!  Commonwealth! Partnership! Koinonia! You can if you think you can.   For example, we can move toward reduction in gun violence in our time, and this hour of sacrament and sermon, is itself a prayerful precursor to it.

I have seen change, good change, in these past few years.  I see unemployment rates now low.  I see two wars ended, with continued foreceful attention to containment abroad and protection at home (repeat last phrase).  I see the Gulf of Mexico cleaned.  I see Massachusetts style health care spreading out across the country.  I see Ebola defeated.  I see deliberation and détente with Iran.  I see civil rights for gay and lesbian people.  I see a global summit on climate change.  I see two vibrant Boston marathons since 2013, and another coming.  I see a growing awareness of the limits and perils of some newer technologies.  I see more and better conversation about race and injustice (it does matter what monuments you have on your campus plaza and lawn, and it helps to know their histories).   I see optimistic 20 year olds who just have never heard that it couldn’t be done.  It can be done.  Yes it can.  It just takes prayer as a precursor, and a prayerful human precursor or two.  Like that one lone Senator for Illinois, who got his start working in Methodist child care program—or did he?—high above Cayuga’s waters, who stepped up and stepped forward and stepped ahead.  Senator Mark Kirk did something, and as his former pastor—or was I?—I should be able to do something too.  Our engagement with history, under the influence of the Gospel of Luke, matters, counts, lasts, is lastingly real.

My grandmother in her eighties had a sign on her kitchen door.  It was her kind of prayer.  ‘Do one thing.  There.  You’ve done one thing’.  Prayer is a precursor.   Prayer is a precursor to learning, doing, and being.  The life of prayer prepares the future’s way.  Precursors have powerful influence.

-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.