Archive for January, 2016

42

Sunday, January 31st, 2016

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Luke 4:21-30

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Luke

Again, the strange world of the Bible beckons us.  St. Luke, you see, stands every day, every Sunday, before us, here in the nave of Marsh Chapel.  Here is Jesus in all his Dominical Authority.  Here too is Luke.  The Scripture—mighty, ancient, holy—calls to us, today out of Gospel According to Luke.

One day you awake, early, and are able to recall the contours of dream.  Strange.  One day, walking, your mind and memory are visited by a feeling gone fore years.  One day, frightful this, news comes of a loved one’s death.  One day you come to worship to worship.  Behold the numinous, the uncanny, the mysterious, the strange, here, now, the strange world of the Bible.

Today–Luke. (He is east of, stage left of Jesus.  Matthew and Mark are west of, to the stage right of Jesus.  Luke and John are to the stage left of Jesus.  And you can hear that truth in more than one way (☺)).

Those at the dawn of life…in the twilight of life…in the shadows of life…You too were strangers in the land of Egypt…as you have done it to the littlest of these you have done it also to me…

Our Holy Scripture today places us, at first, in a thicket of problems and questions:

The Scripture is fulfilled in its hearing.  A   prophet is not honored at home.  Elijah and Elisha go to Sidon and Syria.  The crowd is outraged and poises to attack.  Jesus eases on down the road.

What is going on here, in this strange world of the Bible, which beckons to us to leave behind our mercantile mediocrity?

The Scripture is fulfilled, not in a perfectly just world, in a perfected justice, like that, frankly acclaimed in Isaiah, but in the Reader and the Voice.  Isaiah’s literal prophecy was not fulfilled, and to date has yet been fulfilled.   Another fulfillment Jesus acclaims:

The resurrection is the preaching of the gospel.  The gospel is more than justice.  Now real religion, for sure, is never very far from justice.  But justice, alone, the prophetic, alone, is not the gospel, some of the last fifty years of quasi-theological education to the contrary not with-standing.  The gospel is bigger, truer, deeper–and more personal than that.  Heaven does not touch earth only or fully with the passage of  a perfect national health care bill, as good as that would be. The life, death and destiny of Jesus Christ are not summarized in a global tax on capital, as laudable as that might be.  Your ticket through the pearly gates is not the resuscitation of American socialism, as healthy as that might be.  No. The prophetic is a part but not the heart of the gospel.  The prophetic tradition is a just part but not the full heart of the gospel.  We can be happy to be known as ‘the school of the prophets’.  Would that we were known too as ‘the school of the preachers’.

That is, Elijah and Elisha here are remembered for a very particular reason, one at odds with justice.  They have gone outside of Israel, outside of the community of faith, outside of the expected audience, and outside of their own prophetic tradition.  With Israel hungry in famine, the chosen people awaiting rain water, Elijah comforts them not, not at all, but goes instead to a foreign land, that of Tyre and Sidon, to alone woman, a lone widow, a lone gentile.  With Israel halt and lame and leprous, in need of healing and health care, Elisha comforts them not, and goes away into a foreign land and heals a Syrian, a lone gentile.  Jesus’ sermon at home, where, as with every prophet, he faces a tough home crowd, explodes the minor, limited appeal of justice…to universalize, to preach, the gospel.  The gospel is not justice…but love.  No wonder the crowd is so angry.  The gospel moves away from the interior to the exterior, from the expected to the unexpected, from the just to the loving, from the familiar…to the strange.

In our passage, Luke has given us the whole of his mysterious gospel in miniature.  He has given us a prototypical text:  Isaiah, 61, with its theme of deliverance to those who are hurting.  He has given us, next, a reminder that God works in God’s own ways, as he did in the days of Elijah and Elisha, when those outside of the faith community were helped first.  He has given us a warning, through the threat of the crowd to throw Jesus to death, of what awaits Him at the end of the road from Nazareth to Jerusalem.  He has further given us a fragrant scent of promise, as Jesus escapes, the same sense we are given at Easter—death cannot hold him, even death cannot hold him, not even death can hold him.  He is the Lily of the Valley…

God is at work, at work in the world, at work in the world to make and keep human life human, often to the consternation and surprise of God’s very own people.  (If you go into the ministry, don’t go in needing to be liked.  You may like to be liked without needing to be liked.  If you need to be liked you will not be able to say what needs saying, when people don’t like it, to do what needs doing, when people don’t like it, to preach what needs preaching, when people don’t like it. Strive to be, in the words of a one time presidential candidate, criticizing his opponent, ‘likeable enough’ (☺).  Some of that is underneath Luke 4. )

Forty Two

Strange, uncanny things occur.

Here is a baseball story.

It seemed fitting in Boston not to talk about football this Sunday, so the historical narrative comes rather from the national pastime, invented, as you well remember, in Cooperstown NY, by Abner Doubleday, more than 150 years ago.   It is a great sport, in which you can strike out 7/10 times and be a superstar.  Failure never felt so good.

Besides, football has its own problems, hard as it is for those of us who are avid fans to see.  We love the game.  Yet the spectacle of football, weekend by weekend, is at worst a cultural apotheosis of what one writer harshly called ‘violence, greed, racism and homophobia’ (NYRB 1/16).  As our Boston University researchers, Robert Stern and Ann McKee continue to highlight, football, in Vince Lombardi’s words, ‘is not a contact sport but a collision sport’.  30% of professional football players suffer dementia.  So maybe it will be all right to leave behind our beloved gridiron, at least for a while, and tell a story about a kinder, gentler sport.

Look back nearly a century.  Enter, by imagination, the main street of a small, poor southern town.  The town is Cairo, Georgia.  On one street there is a family with five children.  The year is 1919.

Strange, uncanny events take place.  Now move west, out to Pasadena, a few years later.  We think of Pasadena as the home of the Rose Bowl, that place where everyone is in shirt sleeves on New Year’s Day, while we shiver.  Brrr…One of those children, one of the five, from Cairo, Georgia, has graduated from Pasadena College.  He has four letters, four major sports, one of which, in some ways the least of which, is baseball.  He hits, he fields, he runs, he scores.  In Pasadena.

The ball player from Pasadena took a detour into the army, in the heart and heat of WWII.   In 1945 though he signed up to play professional baseball with a team called the Monarchs, a team in Kansas City.  Do you remember them?  They were the longstanding team in the old Negro leagues.  That was short-lived.   He soon got a better offer to play in Montreal, for the Royals, which then was a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

You remember the Dodgers.  ‘The Bums” they were called, if memory serves.  That couldn’t win for losing, couldn’t organize a two- car funeral, couldn’t compete with another team from NYC, whose name escapes me right now, and us on a regular basis.   He batted .330 in his first year, up in Montreal.  Summer starts about July 1 in Montreal.

Our Cairo GA fellow, our Pasadena star, our war veteran ballplayer, batting .330—do you recognize him yet?  Hold that thought.

That year, 1945, a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University, and its former baseball coach, now President of the Dodgers, edged his way toward making history.  Now Ohio Wesleyan, as you well know, was founded in 1842, along with other freedom and abolition loving colleges in the buckeye state, from Cleveland to Cincinnati, born near the same time.  Its graduates have included Tracey Jones, Norman Vincent Peale, Ralph Sockman, Ernest Fremont Tittle and Robert Allan Hill, and all his kids.  Ohio Wesleyan is a small Methodist school located on the banks of the Olentangy River, in a town know for horse racing, Delaware, Ohio.  An early Ohio Wesleyan President is with us today, in the balcony, well, actually, in the stained glass up there, Bishop James Bashford.  The OWU football team is known as the Battling Bishops, a name that does not often strike terror into the hearts of the opposition, but oh well.  The OWU baseball coach, now the President of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was the one who made the Montreal arrangement, but with a bigger idea in mind.  In 1947, there were no black players in major league baseball. But the Pasadena star and the Ohio Wesleyan coach were about to make history.  Do you recognize them yet?

The coach is Branch Rickey, and the player is Jackie Robinson, number 42.  Branch Rickey, for whom the Athletic Building and Fields at Ohio Wesleyan are now named, was making his move.  Why?  Many years earlier his team from Delaware had a fine black catcher.  But when the team traveled to other states, or even into the Hawking Hills of southern Ohio, hotels would close their doors.   One night Rickey solved the problem by having his catcher stay in his own room.  He came in after a meeting to find the young man weeping and fiercely washing his arms, saying, ‘Can’t I change my color?’.  Rickey vowed that sometime he would do something about segregated baseball.  Rickey was not a saint.  He was a businessman running a losing team nick-named ‘The Bums’.   But he had his faith, his own experience, his sense of history, and his vow to live out.  He needed just the right player.  He recognized that player in Jackie Robinson.

Some idealized longing for justice, alone, would never have brought Branch Rickey to take the risk, to find the courage, to develop the imagination to integrate baseball.  That took love.  Love nurtured in a quiet home.  Love taught in a simple church.  Love preached, season in and out in a Methodist congregation. Love still in the water along the banks of the Olentangy, at Ohio Wesleyan.  Then, in a descript hotel room, with two lodgers, one coach and one catcher, somehow arrived the explosion, the resurrection, the uncanny sense of consanguinity, like that in the time of Elisha and Elijah, like that Jesus preached in Nazareth, the realization that the gospel of love carries over the lines of faith, the plans of justice, the boundaries of religion.

Jackie Robinson ducked bean balls, suffered spikes, endured taunting, hazing, racist rhetoric, and died, by the way, in Connecticut in 1972, still a fairly young man.  His courage, grace under pressure, had a physical cost in the long run.  But on April 15, 1947, Robinson stood at the plate in Ebbets field, played alongside Pee Wee Reese, stole home 19 times in his career, led the ‘Bums’ to beat the Yankees in the World Series of 1955, served for two decades in leadership of the NAACP, (whose current President Cornell Brooks will be with us here at BU\SPH on Wednesday), became the highest paid athlete in the country by retirement, and founded his own bank.  In Cooperstown, in 1962, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame a decade before he died.  His number, ‘42’, across the whole of Major League Baseball, now goes unused, in tribute to him.

And today is his birthday, January 31.  1/31 is the birthday of 42.

I heard William McClain, an African American preacher, tell about growing up in Tuskegee Alabama. He grew up listening to the team Branch Rickey fielded in Brooklyn.  “When Jackie stood at the plate, we stood with him.  When he struck out we did too.  When he hit the ball we jumped and cheered.  When he slid home, we dusted off our own pants.  When he stole a base, he stole for us.  When he hit a home run, we were the victors.  And he was spiked we felt it, a long way away, down south.  He gave us hope.  He gave us hope.”

Love

Love outlasts death.  Love nourishes a lasting hunger for justice, which hunger alone can never feed itself.  Love inspires hope.  Another day, we can honor those, a few, who took the example of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, and applied it to themselves.   Strange, strange world…For example, who would have thought that the successor to the flawless personality of Jackie Robinson, would be eminently flawed character of Curt Flood?  Yet it was Flood, almost alone, who took the baton from Robinson and ran the next lap.  But that is another sermon, for another day.  For example, the young leadership of our own home team, the Red Sox, last month made a startling, strong statement about race past and future in Boston.  For example, Rickey’s own humble Methodist church now is moving toward a rendezvous with destiny, and truth, over the full humanity of gay people.

Love is stronger than death.  Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.   Or, as Paul put it…

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

 Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful;

 it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;

it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.

For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; 

 but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.

So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

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

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The Architecture of Prayer

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

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Luke 4:14-21

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Preface

To illumine the imagination by the beauty of God.  To quicken the conscience by the holiness of God.  To warm the heart by the love of God.  To devote the will to the purposes of God.

An architecture of prayer.  A house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

Let us pause for moment along the trail.  Our journey of faith, cradle to grave, carries us along, headlong, day by day.  In this year, this school year, this calendar year, this liturgical year, this particular year, we have attended together to prayer.

Now we have had other fish to fry, to be sure.  Various thematic Sundays in the fall, from Matriculation to Thanksgiving.  The seasons of Advent, and Christmas, and the New Year, and the legacy of Martin Luther King, as well.  We have our struggles—with health, with direction, with trauma, with worry, with change.

Yet our common mind, our shared intention, here, has this year been to deepen, to broaden, to strengthen, our life in prayer.   Prayer makes the mind still before God.  Prayer is certain sitting silent before God.  Prayer is the strain to think God’s thoughts after God.  Prayer is the hurt of loneliness become the joy of solitude.

Prayer puts eternity into time by the memory, which like a lasso casts its circle around a day past. (Not to go all Marcel Proust on you!) When we can truly evoke a day past, today, when we can see and hear a day from the dead past in the experience of this hour, then time has given way, and we are raised from the dead.  

 That is the glory of an education.  With it you are freed from the present.  You are transported out of this time, and into another.  January is a good month, but not a great one.  2016 is a good year, but not a great one.  The 21st century is a good century, but not a great one (at least not yet).   So, we want of course to learn all we can about context and contexts, about integration and synthesis, about analysis and critique of our time—5%.  The rest is an escape from today, a liberation from the now, into the eternal now.  For those in theology it is biblical, historical, philosophical, pastoral study, and the chance to see the desert stars with Amoun of Nitria, to walk the North African sands with Augustine, whose Latin was great and whose Greek was not, to immerse yourself in love with Bernard, in grace with Luther, in vital piety with Wesley, in short, not to be stuck at in January 2016.  Behold:  you may skate on the pond of eternity if you truly leave the present and enter the past.

Do you pray?  How do you pray?  How shall we pray?  Do you know the Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, the Apostles’ Creed, the 10 commandments, the beatitudes? (A mind is a terrible thing to waste). What is the architecture of your house of prayer?

Illumination

Step first with me into an open dazzling spacious room, glass before and above, light all light filling the parlor.  Such a room is like a beach, like the sand and surf and open big blue of the shoreline.  Pause.  Light streaming in from the higher windows.  Light, sunlight or light with shadow, entering the parlor from the lawn and from the street.  Light, moonlight, starlight, light at night joining with candles and lamps.  The Scottish call the moon ‘the lamp of the poor’.

In God’s light we see light.  Light opens life, and prayer initially turns to the light, like the weary soul turns east when the dawn has come.   Prayer illumines the imagination.

Luke loves to open Jesus’ story.  At every turn Luke adds.  His main addition is half his gospel, from Luke 9 to Luke 18.  But that does not surprise us because he does so all along the way.  He follows Mark, but paints in extra accounts.  Today, where Mark simply has Jesus show up in synagogue, teach, and be rejected, Luke has added a sermon of sorts, a mixed quotation from Isaiah 61.  He hears Jesus this way.  Luke hears Jesus announcing deliverance from human hurt, and especially deliverance for the poor.   He adds to the gospel as he writes his gospel.

He praises, adores, loves, enjoys, celebrates the divine light splashing upon human life!   This is the first room in the great architectural design of prayer.  ‘When I consider the work of thine hands…’

You may be neither fully a theist nor technically an atheist, neither fully an existentialist nor technically a naturalist. Neither naturalist nor supernaturalist, though if you allow one definition, ‘supranaturalist’ might work.  Repeated citations of Chesterton, Sockman, and Hammarskjold, regarding wonder will have to suffice.  You may think we can say less than most of the theists say, and more than what most of the atheists say.  You may think atheists know too much and the theists too little.  You may think the atheists say too much and the theists say too little.  You may recall JB Phillips’ little book, Your God is too Small; or maybe on the contrary it is Wordsworth who touches you, ‘to see eternity in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower’   We are not really in a position to say what God can or cannot be, nor what God can or cannot do.  We are surrounded, shadowed, embraced, and faced by mystery.  Great, deep, fathomless mystery.   We know neither less nor more of God, in one sense, than did the psalmist, or Paul, or Nehemiah or St. Luke.

Illuminating prayer begins with hymnic praise, hence the gift of Methodism, the singing Methodist.  The heavens are telling the glory of God…

Awareness

Now walk with me into another room, this one small and austere.  It might be a library in a large home.  It is quiet more than the books, here, that apprehends us.  A lamp, a chair, a painting.  Yet the books, large and small, ancient and modern, Bible and Shakespeare, stand before us to embed our prayer in the range and wealth of human experience.  Of human suffering.  Our lot is more to suffer than to settle, more to suffer through things than to settle things.

Here we can make a list of mistakes, ancient and modern, personal and collective, and learn from them.

But are we ever fully free, heart and spirit, to see and be and be awed by the sunrise, to at and be entranced by the night sky, to love and be in love with the beloved, to swim in the fresh water of freedom, grace and love?  Do we live to work or work to live?

The world does not revolve around your inbox.  

What if meaning is not in connectivity but in dis-connectivity, being truly plugged in is going unplugged, real surfing is really surfing, with ten toes not fingers, and faithful wisdom inspires a courage to ‘tune out, turn off, drop in’?

With a little quiet, we too as a people can recall the language of compunction, the grammar of contrition, the syntax of lament, the alphabet of confession.  Our current grotesquerie of rhetoric in the public, political sphere, was not born last night.  Such unspeakable speech comes up out of a long, pained, tragic history.  It comes from somewhere. Listen for its march.  As our friend Ed McClure asks, is our rhetoric that of confrontation or conciliation?

In the library, lamp lit, psalter open, quiet around, we might get better acquainted.  With ourselves.  In the new, lovely movie, CAROL, the protagonist declares (in a library), ‘I am no good to anyone if I cut against my own grain’.  We will add the footnote to Dean Thurman.

Warmth

Here is a third step forward, yet another room, but this one with a hearth.  Neither parlor nor library, here is a den, and fire behind a grate.  The embers lift off of the logs.  The wood crackles.  The ancient experience of firelight warms us.  As it did for you on first camping trip, or your first winter hike.  Sit for a moment in the January cold and thaw out.  Dry your mukalucks, tuc and gloves.  Here is a grate.  Here is a fire.  Here is a chimney drawing well.  Prayer brings us back before love.  What do you love?  Whom do you love?  How do love?  You tell me how you love and I will tell you who you are.

Hear the Gospel.  St. Luke does not here commend to us an agenda, some work, a proper policy and procedure.   He announces, before the fireplace.  He announces what God has done.  The prophetic is a part of the Gospel but not the heart of the Gospel.  The Gospel is God in Christ, reconciling the world to God-self.  Paul says the same in 1 Corinthians.  He does not admonish or direct.  He does not say, ‘become a body, become the body’.  He does not write a book of discipline.  He announces.  You are the body.  This is given to you.  Like an architecture of prayer—parlor, library, den, kitchen—you are the recipients of grace.

‘Warmth, warmth, warmth, we are dying of cold, not of darkness.  It is not the night that kills, but the frost’ (Unamuno).   It is not the night of ignorance that kills as much as the frost of hatred.  It is not the night of unknowing that kills as much as the frost of unfeeling.

We send warmth to our listeners in Washington DC, in northern Virginia (including my attorney brother John) and in New York City, this morning.  We have been there.

Last Monday our MLK speaker was the US poet laureate Juan Herrera, who came to Boston from sunny California.  His presence warmed us.  His voice warmed us.  His humor warmed us.   He helped us get up again to face hard things with hope.  You are here out of love, to face hard things with hope.  He remembered elementary school in San Diego.  He spoke almost no English.  In the third grade his teacher was Mrs. Sampson.  She taught him, but more, she cared about him.  She could see that he would survive the night on his own, but not the frost.  One day, he remembered vividly, in the third grade Mrs. Sampson looked at him.  Mrs. Sampson called to him, in the back row.  She said, ‘John, you have beautiful voice.  John, you have a beautiful voice.  Come up here to the front of the room.  Come up here to the front of the room.  Sing for us.  Sing ‘three blind mice’.  Sing for us.  You have a beautiful voice.  You have a beautiful voice. “I write while I’m walking, on little scraps of paper,” he said. “If I have a melody going, I can feel it for days.”

A melody like Rilke’s:

Flare up like flame

and make big shadows I can move in.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

Devotion

We end in the kitchen.  Why does everybody always end up in the kitchen?  You can spread your guests and pastries through all the house, and into every room, but all gather, in the end, in the kitchen.  A place of labor, of production, of distribution, of nurture, or community, of shared affection, the place for the community of faith working through love.  Water splashing, knives cutting, plates filled and unfilled.   My grandfather stationed himself at the sink, following dinner, to wash while others dried and stored the dishes.  How vibrant that after dinner conversation, now many decades gone!

No meal is perfect.  In the kitchen we gather for devotion to shared divine tasks.  To feed the hungry.  To clothe the naked.  To visit the sick.  To release the prisoner.  We make our mistakes here and we acknowledge our regrets here and we move forward together here.  To devote the will to the purposes of God.

Some of our doing may involve reshaping our work life. One accomplished journalist, Janet Malcolm, recently (6/7/13) expressed regret about her chosen profession: ‘I learned over time that journalism is morally indefensible…it is a moral anarchy that willfully places a text’s necessities over and above a person’s feelings’.  She came  to the ability to face the hard and hardened truth of her occupation, from one perspective.

Sometimes it takes calamity, micro or macro, to teach us devotion and purpose.  As Proust wrote, Illness is the doctor to whom we pay most heed:  to kindness, to knowledge we make promises only; pain we obey (II, 104).  Thomas Hardy: ‘a certain provincialism of feeling is invaluable’.

We are committed here, speaking of devotion and purpose, to the shaping of a community that honors, or tries to, the freedom and soul and personhood of young adult women and men, but also the  privacy and safety and security of emerging young adult women and men.  Our work with women, with communities of sexual minorities, with survivors of predatory behavior on campus, with themes, now either neglected or denigrated, of honor of morality of virtue of sensibility of respect, continues today.  

In the kitchen, prayer helps the work continue.

Coda

Prayer illumines the imagination by the beauty of God.  In the parlor.

Prayer quickens the conscience by the holiness of God.  In the library.

Prayer warms the heart by the love of God.  In the den.

Prayer devotes the will to the purposes of God. In the kitchen.

Though what I dream and what I do

In my weak days are always two

Help me, oppressed by thing undone

O Thou whose deeds and dreams are

-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.

Transitions

Sunday, January 10th, 2016

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Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

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Good Morning! It’s a pleasure to be in the pulpit of Marsh Chapel again during this first week of Epiphany. My thanks to Dean Hill and the rest of my Marsh Chapel Colleagues for the opportunity to speak with you today.

Well, we’ve transitioned into a new liturgical season within the church this week. Christmas is officially over, the magi made it to the manger! We’re all getting back into our post-holiday work routines, or preparing for the next semester to begin. I don’t know about you, but the transition from the holiday season has been somewhat of a rough one for me – waking up before 8am, no more afternoon naps, watching less TV. Well, ok, so maybe marginally less TV – that’s been harder for me to transition out of. Over the past week or so, my husband and I have been binge-watching the HGTV show, “Property Brothers.” If you haven’t seen this show, the premise is basically that a couple or an individual is looking to purchase a home, have great expectations for what they want in a home, come to realize that those expectations cost a lot of money, and then end up purchasing a “fixer-upper” home that gets renovated. One of the brothers is a real estate agent, so he helps them find and purchase the home, and the other brother is a contractor who creates the vision of all the things that the homeowners want and executes it for them. I don’t know why, but the process and drama of the show is addictive…episode after episode you get drawn into the personal quirks of the potential homeowners and the unexpected problems they run into in renovating a house. But it hit me a few days ago that the storylines in Property Brothers are really similar to the narrative of the Baptism of Jesus in Luke. No really, there’s a connection.

One of the big parts of the show is the brothers, Drew and Jonathan, getting the homeowners on board with doing renovations. There’s usually a bit of played up drama at this point – people wanting a house that they can just move into instead of having to do work on an older, out of date house.  Most of the homebuyers at some point complain about having to do renovations – some about the time it will take or the expense, but most about not really being able to see how a rundown place could be transformed into something new. How what they desire can come about in a space that they can only see in one way. The property that they purchase will undergo a transformation, and they themselves will go through a great period of transition, of living their lives through this process of transformation. Although his primary job on the show is to be the designer/contractor, Jonathan ends up reaffirming and consoling the homebuyers that the vision really will come true, they just have to be patient and realize that he does know what he is talking about. And in the end, it usually ends up working out – the property brothers have helped individuals find a home and make it fit their renovated vision.

What does a reality television show about home purchasing and repair have to do with today’s Gospel lesson about the Baptism of Jesus? Well, they both describe the complicated nature of transitional moments. Transitions are hard. Whether it be buying a new home, starting a new job, grieving a loss, or some other massive life change, the period of going from what was to what will be can be daunting. But at the same time, it can also be exciting. New possibilities, new relationships, new discoveries about yourself. But in that transitional moment, the mixture of old and new, of intimidation and expectation, can be overwhelming.

In today’s gospel, we learn of Jesus’ baptism and the events surrounding it. We encounter John the Baptist, a relative of Jesus (according to Luke), who recognized who Jesus was when both of them were still in utero.  Remember, back in Advent? He leaped in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came to tell her she was pregnant. It’s that same person. John has special knowledge of Jesus’ origin and who he will become, so it’s not surprising that he plays an important part in the start of Jesus’ ministry.

I will say that it’s unfortunate that our gospel reading starts where it does today, because before this section that is focused on the baptism of Jesus, there is a description of what John is doing and his interaction with the people he attracts. I think this is integral to actually understanding why the people thought John was the Messiah and also how John’s ministry connects with Jesus’ ministry. For some context, I will read part of it for you now:

Luke 3: 2-14

… the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight. 
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth; 
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’

 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

John is called by God in the wilderness to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, as stated in the book of Isaiah. So he begins his prophetic ministry, baptizing those who seek repentance for their sins. However, John does not just baptize those who seek to be included as part of those who are chosen. He is also very clear that it’s not just claiming one’s heritage as part of the family of Abraham that will save the people, but that they must also behave in appropriate ways, acceptable to God, which will support the community. He instructs them to share what they have, to not cheat other members of the society, and to not abuse any power that they might have in positions they hold in society.

Doesn’t this all sound a little bit familiar? I think it helps to set the context for the gospel reading we heard today – John is not just preparing the way for Jesus by baptizing people, but also reminding the people of the words of God found in the book of Leviticus to love their neighbors as they love themselves, especially when it comes to fair distribution of property. John points back to the historical roots of Judaism. He uses his position as a prophetic voice to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. However, like some enthusiastic groups of people, the crowds misidentify John as the Messiah. Instead of taking this honor and running with it, John says “no, you’ve got it all wrong. I’m not the Messiah.” John knows his role – bridging the old ways of Judaism with the new reality that will be found in the life and death of Christ.

John is a transitional figure – he has the vision of the future, but emerges from the past. He fits within the prophetic tradition of Judaism, but knows that the Messiah will bring a change to the way people understand their relationship with each other and with God. John knows his role and his position in this narrative – he is at the threshold of something new, and part of his role is to prepare the people for this great transition – how they should behave before and after this transition takes place. Luke’s gospel is specifically focused on Jesus’ ministry with the poor and the oppressed, and John’s message of both repentance and goodwill to others continues this idea.

Luke’s gospel doesn’t tell us the story of Jesus’ baptism the way most of us think of it. There’s no mention of the Jordan River, in fact, the actual occurrence of Jesus’ baptism almost seems like an afterthought. Jesus “was baptized” – there’s no grand description of Jesus wading into the Jordan with John, and John baptizing him. Instead, it’s the events and the people surrounding Jesus’ baptism that make it special. The practice of baptism in Judaism at this time was a practice of repentance – those who were sinful came to repent of their sin and be washed clean. So it would seem that Jesus would not need to be baptized in this manner according to the teachings of the church. But Jesus chooses to be baptized. Not individually, as some sort of demonstration for others, but as a part of the general crowd of people that were baptized. It is only afterward, when Jesus is praying that a new element of Baptism is introduced. The Holy Spirit descends in a form like a dove and God’s voice booms a pronouncement that Jesus is God’s son and that God is well pleased with him. It is a dramatic appearance of the trinity, to not only Jesus but to all who are present for baptism.

Baptism goes through its own type of transformation in this story as well. While it retains its meaning as being washed clean and repentant of sin, it also endows the Holy Spirit. As we saw in the reading from Acts today, the Holy Spirit doesn’t always necessarily come at the same time as the physical act of baptism – it could actually come before, during, or after the practice of baptism by water, according to the Bible. Baptism washes us clean and also seals us with the Holy Spirit. We are marked as one of God’s children, as part of a community, as part of the Body of Christ.  We welcome each other into the community of Christ through this practice.

Luke’s description of Jesus’ baptism also highlights the importance of community in the process of baptism. Jesus identifies himself as part of the community by being baptized with all the others who were present. God’s announcement to Jesus about who he his is not just for Jesus Jesus’ identity is not a secret, and the start of Jesus’ ministry to the world, an important focus of Luke’s gospel, is ready to begin.

We encounter transitions every day. Some transitions are barely noticeable. We learn new things, we encounter new people, we try new foods, we get slightly older – but all of these moments affect who we are as people. The cliché that you are not the same person as you were yesterday is true. But we tend to notice transitions when they are big. Sometimes transitions are actions we choose to take – we change jobs, move, get married – and some are not – a loved one passes away, we lose our job, we have a major medical crisis. For the first kind, we can attempt to choose how those transitions will happen – at the very least when they will occur. But most of the transitions in our lives have aspects that we have no control over. An example from Property Brothers – the homeowners choose to undergo renovations, the host of the show chooses what the design elements will be, but inevitably there tends to be an unforeseen problem that both the homeowners and the designer have to deal with. We try to make plans for our transitional points, but sometimes life doesn’t allow those plans to go the way we want.

Transitional moments do not have to be an individual moment either – we go through transitions as a community at both the local and global levels. Even as a church we experience transitional moments within our greater social context that point us toward new ways of seeing the world and engaging with it. These moments of transition can be harder to deal with as people can have different approaches as to how to deal with the problems that are spurring a transitional moment. Unfortunately sometimes our reactions during these transitional moments can be delayed because of the many diverse opinions within society. This can continue to create harm. For example, delays in our response to climate change as a society have continued our dependence on fossil fuels and continued the emission of greenhouse gases that have created irrevocable damages to the earth. Our failure as a country to adequately address issues of gun control have led to more mass shootings, more innocent deaths, to the point that reports of them have become commonplace in our media. These moments of transition are opportunities. They are not just events that happen out there in the world, they are moments that affect all of us. What we can do is remember who we are as members of the Body of Christ.

We do have a choice in how we respond to those unforeseen moments within transition. There is one thing that is always constantly present to us: God. God is present to John as a voice in the wilderness, God is present in Jesus, God presents Godself in bodily form like a dove through the Holy Spirit, God speaks to Jesus and lets both Jesus and those present know that this is God’s son. God is always there to rely on and direct us forward. Our baptism reminds of our connection with the trinity. God’s constant presence to us does not mean our lives will be easy, and it would be foolish to think that this would be the case. However, God’s constant presence does mean that we should remember the love of God in how we treat one another and the world around us. We are called to love ourselves and to love our neighbors in a radical way through the teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Often times, the way that we are able to see God’s presence is in community with others. Reaching out to our community for help and support during times of transition can be a helpful aid in making it through this liminal state. The wisdom and assistance of others can help us adjust to new ways of being in the world, or help us to think about how to move forward from a pivotal transitional moment. Even Jesus had a community of support around him as he was about to begin his ministry.

As we continue to transition into the future, dealing with our own personal periods of transition and our larger societal moments of transition we can remember some things. One is shown through Luke’s narrative today – that transition into a new way of being does not mean that we have to leave behind those things that were in the past – they have helped to influence who we are and will become. The past can inform our decisions – it is like the bare bones structure of a house upon which we can build. We cannot forget our past because without it we have no foundation. But we also cannot be afraid to make transitions into the future. We cannot be afraid to speak out against injustice, to change how we live our lives because we think it will be too hard, or to come together as community and support one another through these transitions. While daunting, these transitions are also exciting because of the possibilities they bring about. Like John, we need to have a vision for the future. We cannot get caught up in our own egos, misidentifying ourselves as outside of the problems or more powerful than we actually are as individuals, but instead see that at the heart of all changes and transitions there needs to be support from one another and, most importantly support from God.

Amen.

–Ms. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

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One and All

Sunday, January 3rd, 2016

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John 1:1-5, 9-13

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Happy New Year!  and welcome to this second Sunday of the Christmas season here at Marsh Chapel.  We celebrate the birth of Jesus for many reasons, and our scriptures this morning give us one reason in particular.  For it is not just as individuals that Jesus Emmanuel comes to us; he comes to us also as individuals in community; indeed, he comes to form us as individuals into a community, the community of the church, his heart and mind, ears and eyes, hands and feet still at work in the world.

Jeremiah reminds us that God’s work to build and restore community did not

begin with Jesus’ entry into the world.  It has been a constant in God’s relationship with humanity.  Jeremiah writes from exile in Egypt, while the rest of Israel is exiled and captive in Babylon.  This breaking apart of the community of Israel is a consequence of their choices and the choices of others.  Israel has chosen to break the covenant they had agreed to with God, and they also suffer global forces beyond their control as the Babylonians choose to expand their empire.

But Jeremiah keeps the vision of a restoration beyond exile.  God promises the fulfillment of this vision, a vision of an Israel brought back together from dispersal, a vision of homecoming and of a new covenant that will not be broken.  In spite of seemingly overwhelming forces against its happening, God will reunite the community.  And this reunification will be marked by dancing, merriment, abundance, and joy.  

The author of Ephesians writes out of a conflict within the new and growing Christian movement.  Jews and Gentiles have long been separated by law and culture.  Now they find it a challenge to integrate into this new inclusive community of church.  The author of Ephesians reminds them that they are united in Christ.  Because of that unity there are divine benefits as a present reality in the church’s life.  God provides forgiveness, wisdom, and spiritual power. Through the Holy Spirit God also provides an inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people.  Thus the church is a Spirit-filled community that brings the presence, power, and peace of God not just into its own life, but also into the life of the world.

The Psalmist glorifies God for three great blessings.  The first is the security God provides through inheritors, peace, and abundance.  The second is the creative word of God in creation.  And the third is the coming of God’s creative word to the community of Israel in the precepts that will form them as a unique people.

The author of the Gospel of John also lifts up God’s creative Word, in the person of Jesus, who is a gift to those who receive him and believe in him.  Jesus the Word here is a social being:  with God and as God he creates all things.  He comes into the world in flesh to live in creation among human beings.  He experiences rejection as well as belief.  To those who do believe in him, he gives power to become the community of the inheritors of God.

So these are four of the ways God forms us as individuals in community, as individuals into community.  One is the renewal of covenant and homecoming.  Another is the transformation of conflict.  A third is the giving of security and precepts for a unique identity.  And the fourth is the empowerment of the community to become the presence of God in the world.  So our individual belief and relationship with God is important in itself, and, its purpose is to incorporate us into a community that will act as God’s people in the world.

Now this may sound simple, but it isn’t easy.  With all the trouble in the world and our exhausting busyness, there is great temptation to cocoon and isolate ourselves with escapism and numbing out.  There are also many people, groups, corporations, and governments, including some of our own, that have vested interests in our isolation, and in the fear and sense of powerlessness that accompany it.

For instance, there is very little in the mainstream media that encourages us in our work for the kindom.  A steady diet of “If it bleeds it leads.” does not nourish us in love, power, or hope.  We have to be intentional to find the good news of God’s presence at work in the world.

There are also calls to other allegiances who claim to be sources of power.  I was at the movies last week, and an ad for an international computer corporation came on.  The computer corporation shall not actually be named, but let’s call it Corporation X.  Its ad showed happy and energetic people using the corporation’s products.  The end statement was “Corporation X empowers people to change the world.”  Now from a Christian perspective, a more accurate statement might be, “God empowers people to change the world, and then they use some of the tools sold by Corporation X to do some of the work.” It’s perhaps a subtle distinction, and, it’s a type of distinction that needs to be made more often.  Otherwise we give over our intrinsic power to act as the people of God to some other allegiance or entity with another agenda entirely.

Likewise the rhetoric of part of the current presidential debates, full of wall-building and carpet bombing, ignores the fact that at least some of the people to be walled out and carpet bombed are our sisters and brothers in the community of the Church, or at the very least are our neighbors who we are to love as ourselves.

Perhaps most challenging of all, in an individualistic culture such as ours, is to have the courage and conviction to step out of our individual concerns, out of our preoccupation with “My God”, and out of our fear of the stranger,  so that we can become truly God’s people.  Our greatest challenges are our own:  our remaining racism, our exclusion of LGBTQ persons and women from the full life of the church, our remaining consumerism instead of stewardship, our incivility toward those who disagree with us.  All these are things that keep us as a collection of individuals going in different directions, instead of being the beloved community united to assist the power and presence of God in the world.

We celebrate the coming of Christ because in him we see real assistance in the isolation of our lives.  God’s own self is a Trinity, one God in holy community, Source and Emmanuel and Spirit.  It is that God who invites us into the divine life of perichoresis, the divine life of dancing in partnership with God and with one another.  And in that dancing we are deeply loved and understood and renewed as individuals and communities, loved and understood and renewed by and because of the God who is with us.  

We also celebrate the coming of Christ because he begins with us as a baby.  Mother Teresa said that it is important to do small things with great love, and what we do in community does not have to be huge and exhausting.  The God who begins with us in baby steps will not mind if we begin our projects of love and justice the same way.  And for God to begin with us as a baby means that God trusts us.  God trusts us:  to protect, to nurture, to help grow, to bring to maturity in ourselves and our church community, and to rejoice in the presence of God-with-us, as we then embody the presence of Christ in the world.

In this new year we are invited to see beyond ourselves as individuals to see ourselves as part of the community of God’s people, and to encourage ourselves in that identity.  Where is God at work?  Where is the good news?  Where are we called to support that, or even blaze a trail?  We do not need to be afraid.  We are able to get up and be and be doing.  Because we are not alone.  The coming of Christ to one of us is the uniting in Christ of all of us in the community of God’s people, that community whose work and joy is to bring hope and new life to the life of the world.  Thanks be to God, who gives us this victory in the name of Jesus Emmanuel and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Merry Christmas!

–Rev. Victoria Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

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