Archive for May, 2016

Forming a Trinity

Sunday, May 29th, 2016

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Luke 7:1-10

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“Lord, who has formed me out of mud,

and has redeemed me through thy blood,

and sanctified me to do good;

Purge all my sins done heretofore:

for I confess my heavy score,

and I will strive to sin no more.

Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,

with faith, with hope, with charity;

that I may run, rise, rest with thee.”

  • George Herbert, “Trinity Sunday”

Please, be seated.

Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday, the day of the year when preachers are wont to tie themselves in knots attempting to explain one of the knottiest doctrines in the history of religion: how is it that three persons are one god? Today, a week later, we are at least one step removed from having to consider the arcane intricacies of God’s life in trinity. Instead, today, one week after Trinity Sunday and two weeks after Pentecost, we are moving back into ordinary time, that long slog through summer and autumn when we are less concerned with God in Godself and more concerned with God’s life with us. In making this transition, I invite us this week to turn back to the vision of God’s life in trinity while moving forward into God’s life with us by asking, “so what?” So what that God is one in three persons? So what that God is inherently relational? Where do we, human persons, you and I, fit into this “three equals one” equation?

Alas, addressing this “so what?” question requires decamping into an area of Christian thought that may actually be more arcane than the doctrine of the trinity itself: theosis; divinization; deification. The idea that humanity has the capacity, by God’s grace, to participate in divine life arises biblically from Paul and from John. For Paul, across the aisle in stained glass over the lectern, humans are adopted by God to be joint heirs with Christ, are resurrected body and spirit, and “with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3: 18). John, right next to Paul in the window, puts the words in Jesus’ own mouth, as he defends himself from the charge of blasphemy: “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ – and the scripture cannot be annulled – can you say that the one whom the father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?” The refrain was picked up in the early church. So Irenaeus: “If the Word became a human, it was so humans may become gods.” So Clement of Alexandria: “the Word of God became a human so that you might learn from a human how to become a god.” So Athanasius, watching over us here in stained glass, “Just as the Lord, putting on the body, became a human, so also we humans are both deified through his flesh, and henceforth inherit everlasting life.” So Augustine, also in stained glass: “But the one that justifies also deifies, for by justifying that one makes sons of God… To make human beings gods, that one was made human who was God.” This idea of theosis, of divinization, of deification, sounds like it must be heretical and yet it is at the very heart of the promise of salvation. You and I and we and us, all of us, every one of us, may participate, may partake, may share in the commonwealth of the divine life by the grace of God.

But how? How do we participate? How do we partake? How do we share? This is where things become difficult. Do we as human beings accomplish divinization? Is it a human work? Or is divinization something God does in us? If God does this work in us, how is it brought about? And how do we know if we are partakers in the divine life or not? There is no common Christian witness on these questions, and indeed it is precisely on matters of salvation and its accomplishment that churches most often divide.

This morning I would like to suggest that it might not be possible to arrive at an adequate response to these questions relying solely upon the Christian witness. I suggest that we move further afield to consider wisdom from beyond the confessional boundaries of Christianity. We only need fear doing so if we want to insist that God is so small as to be constrained to a single book, a single concept, or a single institution. If not, we may instead move forward confident that all truth is God’s truth, as the Holy Spirit of God leads us forward into the freedom of all truth.

Let us consider, then, a passage from the Zhongyong, the Doctrine of the Mean, a chapter from the Liji, the Book of Rites, a classical Confucian text. My dear friend and colleague, Bin Song, is here to read the text in Chinese and English:

唯天下至誠,為能盡其性;能盡其性,則能盡人之性;能盡人之性,則能盡物之性;能盡物之性,則可以贊天地之化育;可以贊天地之化育,則可以與天地參矣。

“Only those who are absolutely sincere can fully develop their nature. If they can fully develop their nature, they can then fully develop the nature of others. If they can fully develop the nature of others, they can then fully develop the nature of things. If they can fully develop the nature of things, they can then assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth. If they can assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth, they can thus form a trinity with Heaven and Earth.”

We hear in this text as well the prospect of human participation in trinity, although it would be too much to claim that the Confucian and Christian trinities are in any way precise analogues. Instead, what is helpful here is that, tracing back through all of the dependent clauses, the prospect of a human being forming a trinity with heaven and earth depends upon the absolute sincerity of that individual. “Sincerity” is the translation most frequently employed for the Chinese word “Cheng,” which has a rich set of resonances of meaning, including also truthfulness and realness. Sincerity for Confucians has a particular understanding having to do with restraint of the many competing desires that make up the self in order to arrive at a unified harmony among the desires and with the natural, cosmic order. Sincerity has to do with according oneself with the mandate of heaven.

Perhaps, then, a better translation of Cheng would be not so much sincerity as faithfulness. After all, faithfulness, for Christians, involves according oneself with the will, with the purposes, with the mandate of God. It is accomplished in many ways: in prayer, in spiritual discipline, in worship, in study, in sacrament, in service, and more. Most importantly, faithfulness is a partnership between God whose will is made manifest, and we human beings, who seek to accord ourselves with God.

A wonderful example of this sort of faithfulness comes in the Gospel according to Luke. Another dear friend and colleague, Greylyn Hydinger, reads to us from the seventh chapter of Luke in Greek and in English, to remind us that Christian texts come to us no more in English than the Confucian text we heard earlier.

Ἐπειδὴ ἐπλήρωσεν πάντα τὰ ῥήματα αὐτοῦ εἰς τὰς ἀκοὰς τοῦ λαοῦ, εἰσῆλθεν εἰς Καφαρναούμ. Ἑκατοντάρχου δέ τινος δοῦλος κακῶς ἔχων ἤμελλεν τελευτᾶν, ὃς ἦν αὐτῷ ἔντιμος. ἀκούσας δὲ περὶ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ἀπέστειλεν πρὸς αὐτὸν πρεσβυτέρους τῶν Ἰουδαίων ἐρωτῶν αὐτὸν ὅπως ἐλθὼν διασώσῃ τὸν δοῦλον αὐτοῦ. οἱ δὲ παραγενόμενοι πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν παρεκάλουν αὐτὸν σπουδαίως λέγοντες ὅτι ἄξιός ἐστιν ᾧ παρέξῃ τοῦτο· ἀγαπᾷ γὰρ τὸ ἔθνος ἡμῶν καὶ τὴν συναγωγὴν αὐτὸς ᾠκοδόμησεν ἡμῖν. ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἐπορεύετο σὺν αὐτοῖς. ἤδη δὲ αὐτοῦ οὐ μακρὰν ἀπέχοντος ἀπὸ τῆς οἰκίας ἔπεμψεν φίλους ὁ ἑκατοντάρχης λέγων αὐτῷ· κύριε, μὴ σκύλλου, οὐ γὰρ ἱκανός εἰμι ἵνα ὑπὸ τὴν στέγην μου εἰσέλθῃς· διὸ οὐδὲ ἐμαυτὸν ἠξίωσα πρὸς σὲ ἐλθεῖν· ἀλλ’ εἰπὲ λόγῳ, καὶ ἰαθήτω ὁ παῖς μου. καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ ἄνθρωπός εἰμι ὑπὸ ἐξουσίαν τασσόμενος ἔχων ὑπ’ ἐμαυτὸν στρατιώτας, καὶ λέγω τούτῳ· πορεύθητι, καὶ πορεύεται, καὶ ἄλλῳ· ἔρχου, καὶ ἔρχεται, καὶ τῷ δούλῳ μου· ποίησον τοῦτο, καὶ ποιεῖ. ἀκούσας δὲ ταῦτα ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐθαύμασεν αὐτὸν καὶ στραφεὶς τῷ ἀκολουθοῦντι αὐτῷ ὄχλῳ εἶπεν· λέγω ὑμῖν, οὐδὲ ἐν τῷ Ἰσραὴλ τοσαύτην πίστιν εὗρον. Καὶ ὑποστρέψαντες εἰς τὸν οἶκον οἱ πεμφθέντες εὗρον τὸν δοῦλον ὑγιαίνοντα.

“After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.”

Here we find a centurion, not an Israelite, a foreigner, who recognizes that Jesus is under the authority of God, whose will is in accord with the will of God, and so he seeks to accord his own will with Jesus’ will, and thus with God’s will. Jesus has a fully developed nature, and so can develop the nature of others, in this case the centurion, whose nature develops toward faithfulness in response. Meanwhile, Jesus is able to “assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth” by healing the centurion’s servant. Furthermore, Jesus’ remarks on the faithfulness of the centurion, indicating that the centurion himself is more in accord with the will of God than any he has met in Israel. It is the centurion, and not the Israelites, who is moving toward forming a trinity, toward being divinized into the divine life. The centurion has chosen partnership with God through partnership and trust – that is through faithfulness – in Jesus.

What might it look like to form ourselves into a trinity with heaven and earth, into a partnership with the divine will and pattern offered for our divinization? Well, perhaps on this Memorial Day weekend it might look something like the President of the United States of America traveling to Hiroshima, Japan and declaring:

“Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.

Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds, to cure disease and understand the cosmos, but those same discoveries can be turned into ever more efficient killing machines…

The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.”

Such a moral revolution cannot be divorced from divine will, from the pattern established by heaven and earth. As Dr. King reminds us, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” So too must we bend if we are to accord ourselves with the arc and participate in divine life. To be sure, we have among us those who would lead us who think heaven and earth should bend toward them. This is not the path of faithfulness leading to divinization, of forming a trinity with heaven and earth.

Rather, faithfulness means responsibly attending to our obligations in life in light of the full range of realities of our present moment and attending to the common good for the sake of our commonwealth. Faithfulness means socially responsible investing so that our livelihood is not at the expense of our neighbor, of future generations, and of the planet. Faithfulness means stepping up and stepping in, of saying something and doing something, when the inherent worth and dignity of any person is disparaged, denied, or denigrated. Faithfulness means establishing and nurturing common ground with the immigrant, the religious other, the disabled, the poor, the mentally ill, and anyone else our first inclination might be to avoid or ignore. Faithfulness looks a lot like the Gloucester Police Department reaching out and connecting drug addicts with treatment rather than shuttling them off to prison: responsibility AND justice.

Notably, faithfulness is not about belief. It is the confidence and trust of the centurion, not what the centurion believes, right or wrong, that are signs of his faithfulness, of his desire to accord his will with the will of God. Faithfulness is not believed, it is not known, it is not understood. Faithfulness is done. Faithfulness is practiced. Faithfulness is carried out. Faithfulness is action. Is this works righteousness? No! The whole point is that faithfulness is activity in partnership with God, and it is this partnership that makes us participants and partakers in the divine life.

In a moment we will sing a setting of Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, a hymn declaring our intent to accord ourselves with the will of God, with the pattern and principle of heaven and earth. Celtic Christians had a profound sense of the presence of God, of their own participation as partakers in the divine life, of divinization, of deification, of theosis, of forming a trinity with heaven and earth. As we sing, may we reclaim the promise of salvation that we too might partake in divinity and form a trinity with God. Amen.

–Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC†

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Blessed Trinity

Sunday, May 22nd, 2016

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John 16:12-15

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Triune God

For this Sunday our lessons evoke a Triune God, God in three persons, blessed Trinity.   I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers.  We have peace through our Lord Jesus Christ.  The Spirit of truth will guide you into all truth.  

My friend attended another, here unnamed, divinity school, which at the time was blown about by many if not every wind of doctrine, so much so that my friend, with a bit of whimsy and humor,  described their theology thus:  ‘God in seven persons, blessed heptopoly’.

Here, today, we shall limit ourselves to three, the three persons of the traditional Godhead.  Psalm 8 evokes God as Creator.  Romans 5 evokes God as Redeemer.  John 16 evokes God as Sustainer.  Father, Son, Spirit.   These are choice, endlessly lovely passages, any one of which, and any verse from any one of which should deserve 22 minutes of preaching attention and acclamation.  Memorize them.

The Christian doctrine of Trinity is of course a deeply mysterious matter, out of reach of most of us most of the time.  How can God be, both one and three?   Faith we must guess involves more than math.  Not less than math, but more than math.  If nothing else, about the Trinity, we remember this:  God is relational, on this teaching.  At the heart of the divine there is relationship, of First to Second to Third to Second to First.  This is what the early church found in Jesus:  the God to whom Jesus prayed, the God who guided and inspired Jesus, and the God in Jesus.  This is what the early church found in the Scripture:  Psalm 8, Romans 5, John 16.  This is what the early church found in Life:  the rush of creativity, the joy of love, the breath of spirit.  In our Gospel today, the Scripture goes even further, in a way giving privilege, at least here, to Spirit that guides into truth.  Once the creation has emerged; once redemption has been offered; then it is a matter of spirit, Spirit, wind, breath, gusting Spirit of God.

We preach and pray at the crossroads of faith and culture.  This is true for every congregation, pulpit and place, but especially and keenly so right now at Marsh Chapel.  In a new, perhaps conflicted way, across the country, we may be listening this summer for words of grace, out of our holy scripture, out of our traditions, out of our sacred history, and wondering, hoping, perhaps doubting but still hoping, that these as preached may help us make some sense of what is becoming of us, as a people and as a country, in our time.

We desire a faith amenable to culture, and a culture amenable to faith.  For what good is a baptized cleansing if we are simply thrown back into the mire? Personal and social holiness are married to one another.  Loving faith expects loving culture.

For all the attention we—rightly—give to politics and economics, it is really the cultural realities that have most impact on individual lives, over time.   When an 8 year old bursts through the back door, crying, saying that her school friend, from Mexico, we will be deported, hers is a culturally inflicted wound; when an 87 year old woman, in a nursing home, rues the collapse of her life long party, and surveys its demise and damages with the word ‘dismaying’, hers is a cultural assessment; when a candidate, given to insulting his competitors, and branding them with epithets, reflects on defeating one by calling him ‘low energy’ and, months later, in reflection,  saying, ‘that was a one day kill’ and then adding, ‘words are beautiful things’ (as my Dad said, ‘its one thing to be tough, but its another to be mean’), we suffer a cultural decline; when a great Christian denomination lacks spiritual leaders, general superintendents, who could simply say, ‘gay people are people’, and then keep silent (only one active UMC Bishop in the Northeast, Peggy Johnson, did so this week), this is a cultural measurement;  when only 24% of 17-24 year olds are eligible to seek admission into armed forces (the other 76% ineligible due to obesity, lack of a high school diploma, drug use, criminal record, failure of physical exam or other), here we trace cultural influence;  when forms of worship, meant for enchantment, give way over two generations to a pseudo-worship aimed at entertainment, with direct connections to features of Reality TV, professional wrestling, and beauty contests—the same social expressions now driving some political selection and debate–we face a cultural deficit; in short, when a culture, like ours,  has a mirror held up to it, as has happened this calendar year, and the image is more appalling than appealing, then some among us may begin to return to, revert to, a reconsideration of our more ancient repositories of wisdom:  scripture, history, thought, and scrutinized experience.  In an age of broad cultural malaise, some may seek more steadily the reassurance, peace, insight, and resolve to be found in moments of truth, goodness, beauty—and ordered worship. Those in the pulpits across this country have our work cut out for us in 2016.   How shall we invoke and evoke faith fit for culture and culture fit for faith?  How will we address incivility in a civil way?  How do we oppose demagoguery with democracy?  How do we contrast buffoonery with beauty?  How does one supplant cultural disorder with liturgical order?  How do we combat fear with faith?  We have our cultural work cut out for us this year.

Thank goodness we are not alone!  Blessed Trinity blesses us, especially as Trinity leans to Spirit.

There is a self-correcting Spirit of Truth loose in the Universe, leading us.   Next week we shall begin hearing, along with Luke, from Galatians, chapter by chapter, speaking of spirit and truth, speaking of relationship, speaking of the new creation.  The Trinity leans toward Galatians, on this Trinity Sunday.  Here is your preparation for the Holy Scripture of the next month, your shake down cruise for the trip to Galatia, your introduction to Paul, Freedom, Spirit and New Creation, and the Magna Charta of Christian freedom.  Such beautiful verses:  I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefor and do not be enslaved again.  The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, gentleness, self-discipline.  Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. Here is the story behind the Epistle lessons you will hear through June.

New Creation

Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians is one of the great high peaks of the New Testament.  It is about a whole new life, a new creation.  In fact, it may be the highest peak in the whole range, the Mount Everest of the Bible.  It is written to address this question:  “Must a Gentile become a Jew before he can become a Christian?”.  Is there a religious condition to be met, prior to the reception of God’s apocalypse in Christ?  

After Paul had been converted to Christ, he spent 17 years in unremarkable, quiet ministry.  We know nothing of these two decades spent in Arabia.  All the letters we have of Paul come from a later decade.  Paul was converted to Christ, as he says earlier in this letter, “by apocalypse”.  Christ revealed himself to Paul.  Thus, for Paul, the authority in Christ, is not finally in the Scripture, nor in traditions, nor in reason, nor in experience.  Christ captured Paul through none of these, but rather through revelation, the apocalypse of God.   In short, Paul was not a Methodist.

There is a singular, awesome freedom in the way Paul understands Christ.  We have yet, I believe, in the church that bears His name, to acknowledge in full that freedom.

After these 17 years, Paul went up to Jerusalem to meet with the pillars of the church.  Can you picture the moment?  All in one room:  Paul, Peter, Andrew, James, John, Titus, Barnabas.  And in that room there was argument, difference.  Paul preached the cross of Christ to unreligious people, and they heard.  What would the Jerusalem elders say?  Jesus was a Jew, and had been circumcised.  So also were all the first Christians, including Paul himself.  But God had done something astounding.  It was the Gentiles, not the Jews, who fervently believed the Good News. Should these unreligious children of God be brought back into the Covenant of Circumcision?  No, they all agreed, no.  God had done something new.  So, Peter went to the circumcised, and Paul went to the uncircumcised.  Peter went to the Jews, and Paul to the Gentiles.  They agreed to disagree, agreeably.  And the meeting ended and it was settled.

But you know how sometimes it’s not the meeting but the meeting after the meeting that counts?  What was settled in Jerusalem was unsettled later.  Peter couldn’t be counted on to hold the line, and Paul told him so, to his face.  Peter was inconsistent about freedom—sometimes he ate with the unclean Gentiles—that’s all of you by the way.  Sometimes, when somebody was watching, he backed away.  And Paul caught him at it and as he ways, “opposed him to his face”.  I wish all opposition in church was so clean, direct, personal, and honest.  “One of us is wrong and I think it’s you!”  Paul doesn’t talk about Peter, he talks to Peter.  There’s a life lesson.  Said Paul:  ‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither Slave nor Free, there is no Male or Female’.  Not religion, not wealth, not gender—no, all these give way before Spirit.

In the resurrection, in Christ, in faith, in the new creation, there is no gender.  At least, according to Paul in Galatians.  In Christ, there is no ‘male and female’. Gender is swallowed up in victory.  The Oneidas and the Shakers could sense this, odd and contrasted as were their ways of living it out.

We have yet, I doubt, to take seriously the Good News of liberation found in these passages.   Your identity does not come from your sexuality, your gender, your orientation.  

In this passage, in the Bible, Paul points to a clue, as well, to one of our great arguments today.  Here, your identity is not to be inferred from creation….but from new creation!  This apocalyptic baptismal formula declares the erasure—who says there is nothing radical about Christ?—of the distinction we so heighten, that between male and female.  

So, my teacher, J L Martyn:  “In Rom 1: 18-32, Paul uses an argument explicitly based on creation, drawing certain conclusions from the “things God has made” in “the creation of the cosmos” (Rom 1:20). In effect, Paul says in this passage that God’s identity and the true sexual identity of human beings as male and female can both be inferred from creation.

“What a different argument lies before us in Gal 3:26-29, 6:14-15! Here the basis is explicitly not creation, but rather the new creation in which the building blocks of the old creation are declared to be non-existent. If one were to recall the affirmation ‘It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen 2:18), one would also remember that the creational response to loneliness is married fidelity between man and woman (Gen 2:24, Mark 10:6-7). But in its announcement of the new creation, the apocalyptic baptismal formula declares the erasure of the distinction between male and female. Now the answer to loneliness is not only marriage, but rather the new-creational community that God is calling into being in Christ, the church marked by mutual love, as it is led by the Spirit of Christ (Gal 3:28). The result of such a radical vision and of its radical argumentation is the new- creational view of the people of God…It is Christ and the community of those incorporated into him who lie beyond religious distinctions…Baptism is a participation both in Christ’s death and in his life; for genuine, eschatological life commences when one is taken into the community of the new creation, in which unity in God’s Christ has replaced religious-ethnic differentiation. In a word, religious and ethnic differentiations and that which underlies them—the Law— are identified in effect as the “old things” that have now “passed away”, giving place to the new creation (2 Cor 5:17).” (Martyn, in passim, Anchor Bible Commentary:  Galatians).

God is calling into existence a new community of faith working through love.  There is your identity.  Not what is natural but what is heavenly about us forms our primary identity.  That is, the Bible itself, from the vantage point of this great mountain passage, opens the way for an understanding of identity that is not just nature or creation, but new creation.  This is the community of faith working through love.  Here, there is a place where God may be doing something new, revealing something new.  And, most strangely, it may be those who are not so easily confined by the creational categories of male and female, those who are both or neither, who are on the edge of the new creation.  I know what Paul writes in Romans, but you still must ask yourself, at this point, which is Mount Everest:  Galatians 3 or Romans 1?  I think it is Galatians 3.  I have come to believe that gender and orientation do not provide our primal identity.  No male and female means no gay and straight, no homosexual and heterosexual.  God is doing something new, which includes all in the community of faith working through love.

We worship on Trinity Sunday.  The Triune God summons us to relationship and complexity and courage to seek the truth.  The Spirit of God leads us into all truth:  Come Trinity Sunday we recall that there is, by God’s triune grace, a self-correcting spirit of Truth loose in the universe. The trajectory of Paul’s preaching in Galatians, and thus in total, makes ample space in our churches for gay people.  If you love Jesus, and especially if you love the Bible, then you may just find courage not only to defend a moral life in a post-moral culture, but also to preserve freedom for those who have found a whole new life, and so are very harbingers of the new creation.

God in three persons, blessed Trinity.   I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers.  We have peace through our Lord Jesus Christ.  The Spirit of truth will guide you into all truth.

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

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Boston University Baccalaureate

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

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This year’s Baccalaureate speaker is Carrie Hessler-Radelet, Director of the Peace Corps.

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This I Believe

Sunday, May 8th, 2016

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Luke 24:44-53

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Terry Baurley

In the Episcopal baptismal covenant; the bishop asks; Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. The respond is I will with God’s help.

As a Criminal justice major, I learned about truth in sentencing, drugs and society, the challenges of reintegration, restorative justice, health challenges of the incarcerated, victim impact statements, drug, juvenile, veteran diversion courts and environmental advocacy, policy and law. I believe that police should wear body armor and body cameras. There are courageous individuals fire, police, first responders and emergency personnel, that every day respond to fatal car accidents, veteran suicide, opiate overdoses, accidental death, homicides and events such as the Marathon bombings and 9/11. My hero was my father in law a NY detective and Korean war veteran.

What I believe is the inherent dignity of each and every human being. Each human life is worthy of dignity and respect. I believe in One God the Father Almighty. I believe God loves each and every one of us no matter gender, race, religion or preference. I believe that everyone has the right to clean water, clean air, safe housing, health care, an education and a just and fair judicial system. The founding principles of our County are based on individual rights and freedoms that are guaranteed by our Supreme Court and Constitution. Free speech comes with enormous responsibilities. Let us use it wisely. I believe that every voice counts. Every vote counts. Make your voice and vote count. Bring a friend to the polls in November.

I believe that we need to pass comprehensive gun reform, not to take away rights but to ensure responsible ownership. I believe in changing the laws for gun shows, national background checks, and extended waiting periods.  I believe in attending House and Senate sessions. I believe in meeting with your legislators. Write to them, lobby them, demand change. Change is hard, change is difficult. Courage is the Sandy Hook teacher’s pensions that has called for the divestment from gun manufactures. I have divested from gun manufacturing and believe in socially responsible impact investing. Courage was seeing Matt Richards mother and sister at the Louis D Brown, Peace for Jorge Mother’s Day Walk for peace last year after losing their son and brother in the Marathon bombing. Today, is the twentieth anniversary and the walk is to the state house. Walking today are the personnel from the emergency rooms and hospitals, the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends and those that have lost loved ones.

This quote is from the Mother’s Day Walk for peace, “Peace is not the absence of Violence. Peace is the presence of Healing, Reconciliation and accountability.” “The 7 principals for peace are love, unity, faith, hope, courage, justice, and forgiveness.” One way we can remember those that have died is to remember what they believed, what they valued, and who they loved. To remember them is to continue to carry on the work and continue to call for reform and change. God so loved the world and so must we.

Prayer for Social Justice:

Grant O God that your holy and life giving spirit may so move every human heart (and especially the hearts of the people of this land that barriers that divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease, that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our lord. Amen

(The Book of Common Prayer)

Benjamin Coleman

Picture a man living by the ocean. He lives well, surrounded by friends and family, spending his days on the warm, bright beach with the cool ocean breeze at his back. He’s a deeply religious man, going to church every week and diligently doing charitable works. One day, interrupting this man’s paradise, a forecaster announces that a hurricane is headed toward them that will certainly destroy the town. The man, instead of panicking, resolves to stay, thinking, “I am an upright Christian. I know God loves me. God will surely save me.” Later, as the clouds roll in and the wind picks up, his son visits him, pleading, “Father, please come away with me. The storm will flood your home.” The man responds, “Oh my son of little faith, the storm is merely a test. I am religious, so I know God will save me.” Then, as the wind howls and the thunder booms, a police officer passes the man’s house, yelling to the man, “The hurricane is here. Can’t you see that the sea is rising? Let me get you away from the beach.” But the man resolutely states, “I’m not moving, for God loves me, and God alone will save me from the storm.”

If we lived in the world of the Bible, this story would end much like the ending of Abraham and Isaac: divine intervention where God literally stops Abraham’s hand from killing his son. The man would be swooped away by an angel and flown to safety, or Christ, walking on water, would appear to calm the waters of the storm. But we do not live in that world; the man drowned. By just opening a newspaper, we can clearly see that inequity, suffering, and malice pervades our world with no apparent grand purpose behind it all. In this world, it is easy to resign to Nietzcheism, that life is only about one’s ability to thrive over others. However, this only serves to perpetuate the pain and seeming meaninglessness of existence.

When the man arrives in heaven, he angrily asks St. Peter, “Why did God let me die?” Peter answered, “Oh you fool, he tried to save you with a weatherperson, an officer, and your son. Why are you here?”

I believe in the divine orchestra. God of our time cannot be a single violin playing an isolated musical line, just as God isn’t an omnipotent, old man with a white beard. Instead, God is the sublimity of all the instruments combined, for God has the capacity to live in all of us if we truly carry out our charge to love one another. Just as instruments support and build each other up in symphonies to create something greater than its parts divided, humans, loving each other, must do so in this life to evoke the divine. So, in what do I believe? Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est: Where charity and love abide, God is also there.

Mike Chan

For most of my life, I felt like I was living two different lives. There’s the life that everybody sees, where I’m kind, helpful, and considerate. It’s what people would tell you if you asked them who I was, and it’s probably how I’d describe myself too. I wouldn’t be lying, but I wouldn’t be telling you the truth either. Because there’s the life that everyone sees, and there’s the life that I see. In this life, I’m sick, and I’m dying: I’m someone struggling with depression.

I had always thought that being depressed was the consequence of tragedy and suffering. I know many believe it is a natural condition that everyone encounters – and overcomes – at some point in their lives. But depression is not always synonymous with sadness or grief. Rather, it is a sickness that nullifies life into a dull melancholy. Depression, at its core, strips away the spirit of makes us alive.

Before my depression, I had defined myself as a hard worker, as someone who was mentally tough and strong. But when I got sick, I found myself losing whatever enthusiasm or energy I had for life. Everything, from talking to friends and going to class, became tedious and difficult, and I soon found myself paralyzed with anxiety, unable to do much of anything but lay in bed all day. It took me a long time to realize that I was in trouble and in need of help. And even then, I continued to see myself as unworthy of anyone’s love, thinking no one would actually pity me enough to care for my well-being. But depression often traps you in a prison of self-loathing and delusion. It leaves a void within your own vulnerable psyche, and only compassion and forgiveness can fill and overflow it.

It was hard finding the courage to share my experience with others, and even harder learning how to receive their support once I did. Initially, I felt embarrassed to be associated with the stigmas of mental illness and be seen as a rehabilitating failure. But the empathy that persevered through strangers and close friends alike helped me accept the notion that it was okay to be the person in need. “People might have bigger problems than you’,” a friend said, “but that doesn’t make it any less important.”

Speaking about my depression doesn’t make things easier, but it has helped me found meaning in this torturous experience. And despite the hell I’ve faced over the past six months, I am grateful for the profound insight it has given me. I now see the value of compassion, and how the good we feel comes when we help others in need. Someday, I hope I can repay the kindness given to me to those that are trapped like I once was. And I hope that, in spite of the struggles each of us face in our lives, we can make a conscious effort in ensuring that it’s a fight no one faces alone.

Clark Warner

This I believe.

I hear the voice that speaks all things into being.  I hear the still-small voice in the rainfall and in the sunrise.

I hear the still-small voice in the footsteps of passers by and in the flight of the birds overhead. 

Over these last three years I have heard it more clearly than ever in the brilliance of my classmates at the School of the Prophets. 

That same voice, an inner voice, lives in each of us but more importantly in all of us and in the connections between us.

If we listen to the voice, we learn how to be, how to thrive in the kingdom of God.  If we listen, we learn how to be what others need of us so that they can also thrive in the kingdom of God.  If we listen, we learn how each of us belongs to the other. 

We can’t fully understand the still-small voice alone.  It is beyond us. If we listen intently and share all that we have heard with others who are also listening intently we all begin to understand. 

This I believe. That the voice of the Lord speaks a word to each of us and in community we learn the sentences, the pages, the chapters, indeed, the book. 

This voice that speaks all things into existence has re-told my story.  It has taken my shame and doubt, my worries and fears and told me to ignore them so that I can practice for a life in the Kingdom.  It has re-told my story so that I can join with confidence in the story of our existence.   

Here, at the School of Theology, as I heard the future prophets speak, I have learned to listen more intently to the still-small voice, to hear my word.  I will take my word to you, please take your words to me and to each other and together we will begin to understand and thrive as God intended. 

This I believe.  

Jaimie Dingus

I grew up in southern Virginia. My town was white, middle-class, and conservative. As a liberal Unitarian Universalist, I could not wait to move to Boston. With large UU churches and the UUA headquarters, I was convinced that everyone in Boston must be Unitarian Universalist. I thought I was moving to a place where everyone would be just like me. 

So, I was pretty shocked when I got to BU and realized actually no one here was just like me. There is diversity here, unlike anything I could have imagined. I remember the surreal experience of walking from my freshman dorm to the matriculation ceremony, and meeting someone from Bangladesh. Another time, I ate Indian food with a friend who’d grown up in India. I listened, mesmerized, as my roommate spoke to her mom on the phone, switching between English and Cantonese. The world that had been so small, grew.

As it grew, my understanding of my place within it changed too. I learned about my privilege as an educated, white, American woman. I learned that in order to fight the systems that gave me this privilege, I would have to hear a wide diversity of voices.

This year, I followed a call to build communities that facilitate positive encounters with difference. As president of BU’s Interfaith Council I have helped bring people together from different religions, people who have been taught not to work together, in order to have honest dialogue, and build community.

This I believe

This world is filled with different people. People whose faces, histories and languages do not resemble mine, or my home community’s. Yet, my life is deeply enriched by learning from these differences. I cannot undo the world’s injustice, the hatred and pain, if I am not learning from and collaborating with these other voices. 

As I work to listen to the experiences of others, I am reminded of what connects us all. I believe in a divine light that lives within each of us. This light reminds me to love each person I come in contact with, no matter our differences. It teaches me to love their beauty and inherent goodness, even as I love their failings, ignorance, and mistakes.

This I believe, that my faith calls me to love all people and the divinity that lives in them. And as I do this to remember my own divine light. 

There was nothing like starting anew far from friends and family, to reveal the poison that is the isolation in our culture. Through our diversity, we are meant to be interconnected and yet, systems of competition, greed and hate pull us from each other.

This I believe, that by participating in community that is subversive and caring we break the walls of isolation and that give us an illusion of separateness. I have learned so much as a student here, but most of all I have learned that despite our differences and our struggles, we belong to a single human family.

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A Topography of Love

Sunday, May 1st, 2016

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John 14:23-29

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“Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’”

You are invited to walk in the land of love, from this day forward. Walk in love.  Walk across the landscape of love.  Make love your aim.  Love one another.  Here is a Johannine topographical map for your travels in just one verse alone, John 14: 23.

Our earth science teacher had a way of finding a way to excite 13 year olds with the mysteries of topography.  A.  He traced the advance and retreat of glaciers, and their deposits, in kells and drumlins and valleys and lakes.  He reminded us that we are ice people, up north here.  He pointed out the undersides of the mountains and the different geological formations underneath the similar beauties of the Adirondacks and Catskills.  B. With great energy, he showed us how rivers formed and wound around and changed course.  He reminded us that Susquehanna means ‘winding river’, and then would drift off into meditations upon other native names:  Onondaga, Tioghnioga, Canandaigua, Oneida.  These place names, a part of one local topography, in his merriment and memory became lodged in us, placing us in their places.  The best of the days were those spent pouring over the maps, and the ways that rivers remake landscape.  There is a flow to things, a watery fluidity underneath and sometimes well above the apparent surfaces of life.  C.  He took us beyond the constellations—Ursa Major and Minor, Draco the Dragon, Orion the Archer, Cassiopia on her throne—which we had already located in scouting, and spread out the universe, 14 billion years of age, endless ranges of galaxies, meteors sailing, suns exploding, darkness and light.  He was trying to say something to us, looking back, about our place in the great Place of the  Cosmos. D. He gestured to the winds, the gusting climactic climate about us.  Freezing points, dew points, compass points—all good points.  Behold the topographical mysteries!

Ours today is a topography, not of earth but of heaven, not of earth science but of heavenly science, not of land but of love.  

Love.  Are we lovers anymore?

It can feel blasphemous to speak of love at all.  In a world where warfare continues to bubble up and out of Tutsi and Hutu history; in a world where Ecuadorian huts and barrios are wrecked in natural catastrophic earthquakes; in a world in which Columbian children are kidnapped and made child warriors; in a country, our own, in which there is lasting dispute about whether non-rich children should have full access to education and health care to age 21; in a country in which democracy—as both the ancient Greeks and our constitutional founders soberly feared—suddenly seems to give way to demagoguery (largely it must be underscored, due to the habits of mind, forms of rhetoric, and decades of contention exported from one party and this year from one candidate); in a country that comes to resemble, in spirit,  the ancient Israel decried by Amos, and others, shot through with personal depravity, vapid worship, rampant neglect of the poor, and haughty, foolish overreliance on military might;  in a culture that prizes counting but not reckoning; in a culture which emphasizes knowledge to the exclusion of relationship producing citizens who are often knowledgeably advanced but relationally delayed; in a culture, bounded by misogyny, blinded by racism, bordered by greed, which sees no longer any eternal horizon, nor values any longer the traditions of self-giving which themselves gave the culture its very birth; in a week of further gun death, including that of a two year old shooting his mother from the back seat of the car; in a week of violence in city after city; in a week of smaller slights, hidden swindles, and personal abuses which all fill in the Latin phrase, homo homini lupus, man is a wolf to man; in such a world, country, culture and week it can seem the height of hubris, or naivete, to utter in public the word ‘love’ at all.  It can seem blasphemous to speak of love at all.

Nevertheless….

Here we are!  Here you are!  Bearing witness, giving thanks, offering prayers and tithes, seeking the Lord together.  Sursum Corda:  Lift up your hearts!

Our Gospel does so speak.  Of love.

Are we lovers any more?

Do we let love be our aim?  Do we think daily, and act weekly, and practice monthly the scales, vaults, verifications, and measurements of love?  Do we love God and love our neighbor, loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourself?  Are we going on to wholeness, to becoming healthy and whole in love in this lifetime (Are you going on to perfection?  Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this lifetime?) For what do we live?  If you are not going on to wholeness in love, what you are going on to?

Are we familiar with a topography of love—its glacial forms, its meandering rivers, its celestial stars and lights, its wind blowing where it wills?

Are we lovers anymore?  Are you ready to get the lay of the land?  God’s nature and name is love.  Are we loving people?  

Our topography of love is a verse in four phrases.

Those who love me

Ages ago glaciers cut lakes and hollows and mountains into lasting shapes.   Love has done the same, cut lakes and hollows and mountains into lasting, existential shape.

Faith is a gift.  Faith is not a task, not an achievement, not a work, not an accomplishment.  Faith is a gift, through which we live out our lives in thanksgiving.  Faith is a gift.  You gain no praise in receipt of such a gift, and you incur no blame in the lack of such a gift.  

For those who have been seized by the love of God, the faith of Christ, the confession of the church—is this who you are?—love is the form, the topographical outline of life.  Walk in love.

It must be stressed that, at least here in the Holy Scripture, and at least here in the Gospel of John, John 14: 23, there is no argument that some should jump across a line, or make a personal choice.  It is geological, glacial force at work, here.  Those called to love, those called to love Him, are those called to love, those called to love Him.  Is this you (pl.)?

The verse affirms that there are those who have a revelation that they are meant to love.  They have the gift, the faithful gift of love.  Some have the gift of strength, some the gift of music, some the gift of philanthropy, some the gift of insight.  Faith (pistis) is such a gift.  Love (agape) is such a gift.

For the first readers and hearers of this passage, our verse revealed a mystical union, a mystical audition, a mystical shift, a mystical experience, whose essence in retrospect became: We are meant to live in love, as those who love Him.

Will keep my word

The lakes and rivers that filled with water, over long, flowing, fluid, time, kept alive a saturation, a potential to slake the thirsts of life.  Especially their propensity to meander, to wander, to saunter, to wonder, to move and live and have being, that propensity to fluidity makes a lively, loving word.

We may want to wrestle a bit with both the verb and the noun here.  

To keep is not to obey, to keep is not to hold, to keep is not to hear, to keep is not to possess, although it is all those things and more.

In a small upper room, perhaps in Ephesus, maybe in the year 90ad, possibly with 30 or 40 present, a word is spoken and heard.  It is a voice that speaks like no other, ‘so equable, magnanimous, and serene’ (J. Ashton).  To hear it one needs to listen.  One needs to learn to hear, to practice listening, to train the ear, as some music schools do.

A word is not text, ancient or cyber, nor a verse, however venerable or holy, nor a doctrine, even a powerful doctrine.  The word is near your heart and your lips, too.   How will you hear a word of God without listening for such a word?  In Scripture, in Prayer, in Worship, in Conversation, in Meditation, in Sacrament, in Silence—day to day pours forth speech.  But have we ears, ears to hear?  There is a kind of turning of the back upon the world commanded by this word, His word.

(In an age sorrowfully awash in vulgar words, hateful words, misogynist, xenophobic, racist, artfully hateful words, in an age sorrowfully awash in a culture that languishes in the doldrums of a pervasive malaise, a pervasive amnesia, a pervasive torpidity, a pervasive ugliness, now unleashed, to our shame, in the political events of this year, one especially needs the care and cultivation of hearing.)  

Good news:  you may have confidence that such a word, yours to keep, yours for the keeping, may be spoken and heard.  Here.  Now.

My Father will love them

Now the celestial lights are before us.  The planets, the stars, the meteors, the darkness and the light, the evening sky—these illumine our few days upon the earth.

We this week had sign board on the plaza for students to use to write out what they hoped to do and be in life.  The word love was not absent, but almost so, as my friend pointed out.  Many other words were written on the chalk board, but not love, not often.  One wrote: I hope to find someone to love.  Another: I want to love as I have been loved.  But these sorts of sentences were few in number.  

The day before we held vigil, again, for a student who died three years ago.  Her mother, her friends, her former housemates gathered, three years on, at the monument, the King monument.  You look for something sturdy in grief.  We stood with flowers, wreaths, and photos.  We ‘said some words’ (interesting locution).  We waited in quiet.  We wept, some at length and with profusion.  We lit candles, shielding them from a light wind.  When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.

Again, there is no transaction here, no quid pro quo, no love for love trade.  Here is eternal love, ‘my Father will love them’.  Topos is place; graphe is writing—the depiction of a space, a topography of love.  No one has ever seen God.  But if we love one another God’s love abides in us and is made whole in us.

Huston Smith, when teaching at MIT long ago, said:  we are in good hands, and so it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens. 

We will make our home with them

To see which way the wind is blowing you need an anemometer.  A glacial form, a river bed, a sacred canopy—earth, water, stars—make up our topography of love, with one addition, by the strength of this verse, John 14:23.

There is to be an indwelling, a making oneself at home, Father and Son will come and take up residence, be present, become presence.  Here our humble sacraments, of holy baptism and holy communion, of bath and meal, of washing and eating, of cleansing and nourishment may bring a helpful reminder, with thanksgiving, of presence, His presence.

Yet the earliest hearers and readers of our verse felt something more.  They felt Him making a home in their midst.  They felt Him living with them.  They felt Him dwelling among them.  I have seen Him in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps.  They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps.  I can read his righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps.  His day is marching on.  

Here is Paul in the seventh heaven.  Here is Lydia opening her life.  Here is the Psalmist at peace.  Here is Augustine in the garden.  Here is Aquinas calling a lifetime’s writing, ‘so much straw’.  Here is John of the Cross, en una noche oscura.  Here is Luther in agony.  Here is Wesley in the rain of Aldersgate Street.  Here is Harriet Tubman, walking north to freedom.  Here is Martin Luther King, signing books on Manhattan, suddenly wounded and bleeding.  Here is Francis, Bishop of Rome, in our time, imploring all to honor the conscience of the believer, which is inviolable.  Here is Howard Thurman, on the beach.  Here you are—formed by love, guided by love, embraced by love, now touched by love.  You may recall in prayer:  I am loved.  So I can love.  The topography of love carries a mysterious, no a mystical, wind, breath, breeze…spirit.

Are we lovers any more?

Do we let love be our aim?  Do we think daily, and act weekly, and practice monthly the scales, vaults, verifications, and measurements of love?  Do we love God and love our neighbor, loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourself?  Are we going on to wholeness, to becoming healthy and whole in love in this lifetime (Are you going on to perfection?  Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this lifetime?) For what do we live? If you are not going on to wholeness in love, what you are going on to?

Are we familiar with topography of love—its glacial forms, its meandering rivers, its celestial stars and lights, its wind blowing where it wills?

Are we lovers anymore?  Are you ready to get the lay of the land?  God’s nature and name is love.  Are we loving people?

“Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’”

-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.