Archive for September, 2016

The Bach Experience

Sunday, September 25th, 2016

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Luke 16:19-31

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Dean Hill

 In music and word, again this Lord’s Day, we worship Almighty God, and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified.  For ten years now in this manner, twice a term, we have sought to preach the good news and offer the gift of faith, a gift now offered to you, the hearer, you, the listener, by way of the confluence of music and word, chorus and sermon, Bach and Experience.  To our knowledge, this sort of offering is sui generis, unique.  A woman, say, listening today in southern New Hampshire, struggling to interpret hard news from North Carolina and Washington State, may hear us and the offering of faith.  Faith in a recognition of the wonder of creation, God the Creator.  Faith in a beginning step alongside the promise of baptism, God the Redeemer.  Faith, to start, in the sudden exclamation by spirit—I exist! Here! Now!–, God the Sustainer.

Faith is a gift.  In the gift of faith we find the courage to face death.  Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.  In the gift of faith, we find the courage to face life.  Life in all its turmoil, cacophony, and difficulty.  To take another step.  That may be all our listener in southern New Hampshire needs from the gift of faith today, as Sunday morning slips into Sunday afternoon, and the burdens of the rest of the day and the week to come.  A sense of love, at the margins, a sense of possibility, though far off, a sense of promise, hidden but real.   Baptism is a sign of the gift of faith, and faith is the courage to face death and life, to take another step, to walk ahead into the dark.  Bach sings faith and Jeremiah speaks faith and we attempt to weave the two together.

 Dr. Jarrett

Today’s cantata was composed by Bach for the Feast of St John observed in Leipzig on June 24 of 1724. The date makes Cantata 7 the third work composed in Bach’s second full cycle of cantatas for the church year. As we have come to expect from this particular cycle, many of these cantatas are closely connected to their chorale tunes, these tunes often appearing in the soprano part on long tones, directing and connecting the listener to the stories and teachings of the great hymns of the faith. Cantata 7 numbers among the important “chorale-cantatas” of this cycle, and draws compositional inspiration from Martin Luther’s 1541 hymn “Christ our Lord came to the Jordan.” Of the cantata’s seven movements, the first and last movements, sung by the choir, take their text directly from Luther, while the inner solo movements are paraphrased from Luther’s inner verses and attributed to Bach himself.

The story of John the Baptizer and of Jesus’s baptism is found in the third chapter of Matthew and Luke, and right away in the first chapter of Mark and John. These accounts mark the beginning of Christ’s ministry on earth, and lead ultimately to his Passion and Resurrection. Each account bears the familiar imagery of water, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and the voice of the God from the opened Heavens declaring pride and pleasure in his only Son. When viewed together, the fullness of the Trinity is richly depicted in the Baptism story, and Christian teaching through these symbols is a clear public anointing and forecast of the teachings and purposes of Jesus in his earthly ministry.

If we look back just a few verses, and focus on John, we find similarities in these accounts as well. John is depicted as something of a wild, ruffian whose prophesies excite and call his audience to prepare for the one who will come and will purify the world by fire. This is the important connection for Bach as he sets out to write his musical sermon for the day.

Water imagery abounds throughout the cantata, bubbling, rippling, even crashing in what Craig Smith has called Bach’s La Mer. Throughout the cantata, the purity and clarity of the water is tinged and colored by the awareness that Jesus’s blood – that is to say, his Passion – transforms the water with the purifying zeal of the refiner’s fire. Let’s take a closer look.

The Cantata opens with a monumental, even epic, setting of the first verse of Luther’s hymn. You’ll find the chorale tune in long notes, not in the soprano part, but submerged in the tenor part with old-style polyphony in the other four parts all around. The vocal parts considered alone proceed with an austerity that reminds the listener to look up from the Jordan to the Cross. Musically, the remarkable material here is the freely composed instrumental ritornelli that open, close, and punctuate each of the nine phrases of the chorale tune. Our program annotator Brett Kostrzewski reminds us that Jesus’s arrival at the Jordan for baptism marks the onset of his adult ministry, and Baroque conventions provide a stately French overture with dotted and regal rhythms for any auspicious arrival. And so the cantata opens with strong French overture rhythms in the upper strings and oboes in a harmonic sequence that outlines the austere modal colors of the chorale tune. But one immediately hears the Jordan lapping at the hem of Jesus’s garment in the cello and bass figurations that support the upper material. This short and strict two bar phrase freezes harmonically as the violin soloist’s second theme figurations depict more churning of the purifying Jordan waters. The cello’s original motif is transferred to the upper supporting strings, further suspending progress. The overall effect is one of churning, expectation, even foreboding.

The three arias that comprise the corpus of the cantata paraphrase the inner verse of Luther’s hymn. In the first, sung without preparatory recitative, the bass calls every believer to baptism, not with water alone, but with the Word and Spirit of God. One imagines a good Methodist baptism in the sprinkling heard in the cheerful accompaniment. The central tenor recitative and aria connect all of the Gospel images with fiery virtuosity on full display from two solo violins and the bravura of the tenor part. The words of God in the moment of Jesus’s baptism are sung in the second half of the tenor recitative as if to provide full charge for the purification to come. The zeal of the aria’s opening imagery softens at the mention of the Dove. [Be careful – the German word for Dove (Taube) is only one letter away for the word for Baptism (Taufe).] The bass returns for a recitative that reminds us of Jesus’s call for his disciples to teach and baptize throughout the world. The words of Jesus are set in a manner the presages Bach’s musical treatment of the words of Jesus in the Matthew Passion with strings ‘halo-ing’ the text in red letters. The final aria for alto soloist begins notably without any introduction. To me, this underscores both the connection to Jesus’s commandment, but also creates a greater sense of urgency for this text. The message here is a direct exhortation of the purifying power of faith and baptism. The final movement is a standard four-part chorale, but the amount of theology packed into this verse is worth noting – here Luther connects everything: original Sin and our own inheritance of sin, the redemptive grace of Christ’s Passion, all forged by the purifying power of personal devotion, faith and baptism.

Dean Hill

 The beauty of the music this morning is itself a sort of baptism.  We sometimes long to take a spiritual shower, to bathe ourselves in the living waters of grace, faith, hope, life, and love.   Especially, it might be stressed, on any college campus today, the need for spiritual cleansing in the midst of sub cultural murkiness, is continual.  We need both judgment and mercy, both honesty and kindness, both prophetic upbraid and parabolic uplift.  And we get them, thanks be to God, in Jeremiah and in Luke.  But look!  They come upside down.  In a stunning reversal, kindness and gentle hope are the hallmarks of our passage from Jeremiah, while wrath and hellfire explode out of Luke.

Listen again to the voice of the prophet, one of the great, strange voices in all of history and life, one of the great, strange voices, in all of Holy Writ.  Jeremiah.  All is lost, in Judah, as Jeremiah addresses Zedekiah the King.  You will be a slave in Babylon, King Zedekiah.  You will be given into the hand of your sworn, mortal enemy, and so too will be the fate of your city, your temple, your people, and your country, King Zedekiah.  BUT.  NONETHELESS. AND YET.  These are resurrection words.  BUT. NONETHELESS. NEVERTHELESS.  STILL.  EVEN SO.  And Jeremiah put his money where his mouth is.

In this season of cultural demise and decay across our country, we benefit from the harsh challenge of Luke, and we benefit from the hopeful promise in Jeremiah.  You see, as we said some weeks ago, there is more Luke in Jeremiah than at first you think, and there is more Jeremiah in Luke than at first you think.

Sin is not doing concrete deeds of generous kindness.  Of all the Gospels, St. Luke most emphasizes this:  in the sermon on the plain; in the wording of the Lord’s prayer; in the parables of Sower, Samaritan, Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son, Dishonest Steward, Guests to the Wedding Banquet, the 10 healed Lepers; in the communal interest extended to Samaritans (those of different ethnic and religious background), to women (those whom tradition has marginalized), to the poor (those left forgotten in transaction and acquisition, to the lepers (those ritually and culturally excluded).  To read Luke is to be given eyes to see by contrast abroad in America today an emerging culture of denigration–denigration of immigrants, Muslims, and Mexicans–and to weep.  It is not enough, though it is true enough, to blame this almost exclusively on one particular candidate and one particular party. (repeat).  No, the mirror is held up for us all, for all of us in some measure have contributed to a culture that is uncultured, a rhetoric that is rancorous, a politics that is impolitic, an increasingly uncivil civil society, a rejection of hard-won experience and preparation in favor of careless entertainment and tomfoolery, a preference for cruelty over beauty, and a robust willingness to throw away hundreds of years of painstakingly crafted institutional commitments and social norms. You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but cannot fool all of the people all of the time.  Will Lincoln’s proverb hold in our time? You may well hope so, though you may well doubt so.   Finally, as Jeremiah looks upon Zedekiah, we confess, we get the leaders we deserve.

More personally, in the Methodist tradition which built Boston University, other than worship and the study of Scripture, the most cherished practice of faith is tithing:  annually giving away 10% of what you earn.  The reason for the centrality of tithing—today, sadly, honored largely in the breach, even in Methodism, now, to our shame—is set for us in today’s harsh parable of Lazarus and Dives, the harrowing horror of what it means to forget the needs of the poor.  Such forgetfulness is a persistent threat in the heart of all human life, but is especially challenging for those who have much, and so are sheltered, routinely, from the anxiety of poverty, the hurt of exclusion, the pain of hunger, and the despair of lack and loss.   Sin is the unwillingness on a weekly basis to practice generous kindness, to tithe.  Luke reminds us so.

And Jeremiah?  Now that his beloved country is in ruins (are we beginning across our own cultural landscape this fall to catch a glimpse of his woe?), Jeremiah does something great.  Remember:  the city is burned, the temple is wrecked, the population is slaughtered or in chains, and the nation is destroyed, soon to spend two generations in Babylon, by the rivers of Babylon, where to sit down and weep, as tormentors mock, ‘sing to us one of the songs of Zion’.  But Jeremiah buys a plot of land.  One day, a long time from now, he muses and prays, there will be some manner of restoration: ‘I cannot see it.  I cannot hear it.  I cannot prove it.  Sometimes I cannot believe it.  But, hoping against hope, I will buy some land, and someday, somebody, somehow will use it’.  This is faith:  to plant trees under which you will not sleep, to build churches in which you will not worship, to create schools in which you will not study, to teach students whose futures you will not know—and to buy land which you will not till.  But someone will.  Or at least, that is your hope.  That is why, as darkness is falling across a confused, frightened, and benighted land, you have done some things this fall.  You offered a morning prayer.  Good for you.  You sent a check to support some leader or candidate.  Good for you.  You went and volunteered to make contacts and calls on his or her behalf.  Good for you.  You spoke up and spoke out, regardless of the fan mail, family disdain, and other costs.  You did something.  Will it make a difference?  It may not.  But it does make a difference, for you, if for no one else.  Go and buy your little plot of land.

James Weldon Johnson gave us our marching orders, in words both of challenge and of hope, words that recognize straight-up what real harm can and has befallen people, especially his own people, and words that cling, even desperately, to a future, a future hope, something hoped for but not seen, and ever subject to neglect, amnesia, rejection, and defeat. Marsh Chapel’s own Max Miller gave us our accompaniment, as well, our marching beat, in music both of challenge and of hope, a hymnic cadence mindful of harm and aware of hope. May Johnsons’ words and Miller’s music, their Jeremiah 32, their Luke 16, guide us forward.

Behold a broken world, we pray, where want and war increase,

And grant us Lord, in this  our day,

The ancient dream of peace.

God of our weary years

God of our silent tears

Thou who hast brought us thus far along the way

Thou who hast by thy might

Led us into the light

Keep us forever in the path we pray

Lest our feet stray from the places our God where we met thee

Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world we forget thee

Shadowed beneath thy hand

May we forever stand

True to our God

True to our native land

Bring Lord your better world to birth, your kingdom love’s domain

Where peace with God

And peace on earth

And peace eternal reign.

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

& Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

An Invitation

Sunday, September 18th, 2016

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Luke 14:15-24

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An invitation.

Who: you!

What: this sermon

When: right now until…question mark?? (or approximately 20 minutes)

Where: 735 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, wbur 90.9 fm, wbur.org, our podcast

Why: well, to hear the Word of God in a new way with insightful commentary and explanation, or so I hope

RSVP: By staying in the pew, not changing the radio station, or not skipping over the sermon while listening to the podcast later

Invitations are all around us. I was invited to this pulpit today by our Dean Hill, asked to reflect on the word in light of our international student population here at BU. Thank you, Dean Hill for your invitation! In turn, I invited others – three of our participants in the service are international students here at BU – Eleanor Yan, who read the passage from Romans in Mandarin and English, Moises Rodriguez who read the gospel in Spanish and English, and soon after this sermon ends, Sanghee Lim, who will lead our Prayers of the People in Korean and English. I am thankful for their acceptance of my invitation as well as the help of the Rev. Soren Hessler in the extension of those invitations. Thanks to each of your for your help and participation today And then of course there is the invitation that we extend each and every week to all of you who are here or listening from far away. We invite you to be a part of our worshipping community, to hear the Word of God, to engage in prayer, to meditate on the musical offerings, to occasionally partake in the Eucharist, and most importantly, to worship God.

My role here at Marsh Chapel is to serve as the University Chaplain for International Students. Generally, when people find that out they ask what my job entails. What is a chaplain for international students? What do you do? I provide support for our international student population through pastoral care. I create opportunities for engagement, fellowship, and learning among our international and domestic student populations. I help plan worship opportunities like today and work with our interfaith and various faith student groups on campus. But mostly, I have the honor and pleasure of learning about and experiencing the various cultures and traditions present on this campus, and creating spaces for students to learn, explore, and be in community with one another. In short, my job rocks.

At the beginning of a school year, I would say that about 80% of a university chaplain or campus minister’s time is spent around the idea of invitation. Issuing invitations to students to come worship and events, being invited to beginning of the year receptions and gatherings, not to mention the running the actual events and gathering themselves. Here at Marsh Chapel we’ve hosted plenty of events and fellowship opportunities in the last week, meeting new students and welcoming back returning students. Joining them in fellowship over food, in discussion about faith, and giving space for clarity and mindfulness. Presenting them with open opportunities to interact through art, and opportunities to worship together. Our whole ministry staff team has put in hours of dedicated service to the community, often times by simply being present for a specific amount of time in a specific place. We have invited folks over the internet, over the radio, and via flyers and listings on the BU Calendar.

But perhaps one of our most effective ways of invitation was simply just being visible to others and enthusiastically welcoming them to join in our activity. You heard a bit about this last week, when the dean recounted our “greening of the dorms” activity out on the BU Beach. During this event, we stood out on the green lawn behind Marsh Chapel with small pots, paints, brushes, dirt, and seeds, inviting students to personalize their pottery and to take home planted seeds that will hopefully grow into delicious basil. What Dean Hill didn’t tell you was some of our invitation techniques. These included shouting “Hi! Do you want to paint a pot?” Or “Do you want some basil to take home?” or, and I think this may have been Br. Larry’s favorite tactic, wildly gesticulating at passers-by that they should join us by making large waving motions. The tactic worked, and most people, once they figured out what we were doing were enthusiastic about participating and conversing with us and other who had gathered around.

Not every interaction needs to be so lively, however. For example, Soren Hessler and Jen Quigley’s weekly offering of Common Ground communion on Thursday afternoons. And by every Thursday, I mean, EVERY Thursday, regardless of the temperature or meteorological conditions outside. They extend their invitation to passers-by rather simply, through a sign that reads: Common Ground Communion, Thursdays 12:20pm, Marsh Plaza, ALL ARE WELCOME. Having substituted for them once and also from hearing first hand accounts from both Soren and Jen, mostly you get a lot of stares, but usually there are a few who stop to take and eat. Through their simple sign they attract people, and have even created a small community of “regulars.”

As an expression of hospitality, invitation is the way we let others know that they are welcome into our space to share in a moment with us, whether significant or not. Invitation takes on many forms. The formal invitation, printed on cardstock, delivered through the mail. The evite – an electronic invitation sent via email. The Facebook event invite, which basically is what it sounds like. The informal invitation – which can be done in person, over the phone, or via text message. All of these forms of invitation require that the host extend the invitation, although not all require the same level of response.

There are rules about invitations. Who gets invited, when we invite them, how we expect to find out who is coming. For more formal affairs, invitations are exclusionary – only close friends or family, or important people are invited to such an event. These events generally require that the attendees are notified far in advance and that they send their response in enough time for the host to prepare for them. On the other end of the spectrum, we have the public event, those opportunities which are open to any person who happens to be in the area, and which may or may not require a response from the attendees. These events might occur at a moment’s notice and bring together a disparate group of people for one purpose, for example a protest or a flash mob.

While formal events still occur, for which people follow the rules of etiquette regarding invitations such as weddings and galas, our society has tended toward looser definitions of invitations and RSVP’s with the advent of social media and texting. When was the last time you received an invitation on paper to something? I’m willing to bet for many of you it was to a wedding, which has remained steady in the execution of formally extending and invitation (although even now, that may not always be the case).  Technology makes it easy for us to be wishy-washy on our responses – it gives us to say “maybe” rather than yes or no to an event, or to choose to say that we are interested in an event without committing to going. And believe me, there is nothing more frustrating than seeing 7 “goings” and 40 “interesteds” on a Facebook invitation. What does that mean? How much food should I make. It brings to mind a campus ministry colleague’s posting earlier this semester: “Hmmm. Should I order 3 pizzas or 12 pizzas for tonight’s event? You just never know, do you?” Or about the first meeting of Global Dinner Club this semester, where we had about twice as many attendees as I was expecting, necessitating a last-minute run to the grocery store to pick up extra supplies. Ministry involves opening the door for community, but much of the time you’re never quite sure who will show up.

Today’s gospel revolves around an invitation and the accompanying customs of the time. The parable Jesus tells is in the midst of attending a banquet, a carry-over from the beginning of chapter 14 in Luke. Perhaps this is why this particular parable is left out of our lectionary offerings – it is too similar to the opening of chapter 14. This parable, like the one at the beginning of the chapter, also focuses on banquet etiquette, but does so in framing the story around a specific event rather than proclaiming general etiquette rules about where you should sit at a banquet and why. More specifically, the emphasis in the parable is on the responses the host receives from those whom he had invited first. Luke goes into detail explaining each of their excuses, framing them as the focus for this ethical tale. The first invitees, like the host, presumably have money and are at the same social level. They also presumably initially responded yes to the host’s invitation when he issued it. But, upon being prepared to receive the guests, the host is confronted with a barrage of lame excuses from them. The first two respondents are too concerned with their material possessions that they cannot attend. The first needing to survey the land that he just bought, and the second needing to try out the oxen he just purchased. It’s similar to having invited a friend to a dinner party, having them agree that they will be there weeks ahead of time, and then texting you two hours before to say “I just picked up my new iPhone 7, and I really need to test it out. Sorry!” The third response really gives no reason why, just “I just got married, I can’t come.”

Maybe you’ve been in the position of hosting a party or an event only to have a significant portion of people make excuses for why they can’t come at the last minute. Perhaps you understand why the host in this story becomes angered because of this. Or alternatively, we’ve all been in the position of making an excuse at the last minute to get out of going to an affair we’ve known about for a while. In justifying our behavior, we may assume that everyone else will follow through with their “yeses”, so us not showing up will not have any impact on anyone else. But if everyone cancels at the last minute, then the host is left without guests, and the event fails. The men who fail to show up at the appointed time in the story may feel that they have no need of what is being offered at the banquet (food and community), and therefore remain unaffected and somewhat unrepentant in their excuses.

What the host does next teaches us about the radical hospitality of God. Instead of trying to find more friends who might be able to attend, the host instead instructs his servant to invite the lowest of the low to the banquet; the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. Does he do this out of spite for his friends that turned him down? Perhaps. But the host’s actions may also be out of recognizing who really needs and would benefit from such a banquet. Those who are hungry or left out from the rest of society would not turn down an invitation such as this. Or even if these new invitees have second thoughts about attending, the host tells his servant to compel them to come, to fill his house with people. And, in turn, to exclude those who initially turned away his invitation.

We could understand this story eschatologically, signifying the great banquet in the Kingdom of God and who or who will not be invited. It suggests that God’s invitation to the “great banquet” is available to all, but individuals must agree to accept it. In Lutheran or Methodist terms, that the grace of God is extended to all, but that we should not be distracted by other obligations or material gains in recognizing it. And this is an important reading of the gospel for all Christians, but we also need to recognize how this parable teaches an ethical lesson in addition to the theological points it brings forth.

But I think another way to look at this story is to see the situation as an example in present reality which is meant to teach the people Jesus is dining with and the audience Luke is writing for about proper Christian hospitality toward others. We are included in that audience. Christian hospitality requires both the host and those invited to be open to one another. Extending this form of hospitality is mutually beneficial for both the guest and the host. It calls on us to form community through our invitation, rather than to only acquire material goods. Even if material goods (i.e. the food) may be needed by those who do attend, the feeling of being connected to others and being considered a part of the community becomes what is ultimately important. In some ways, the Eucharist serves a similar function for us. It is the time when we all come together to share in a meal regardless of background or status and it anticipates the great banquet that will occur in the Kingdom of Heaven.

God’s invitation and the Christian notion of hospitality asks us to take on a radical form of egalitarianism, placing all on the same level. In welcoming the stranger, as Paul instructs in his letter to the church in Rome, and welcoming those from all walks of life, as the Gospel presents through Jesus’ parable, Christian hosts dismantle the levels of power which may otherwise exist. By extending an invitation to the stranger, we come to know the stranger as a person and care for them as a part of our community. We learn from the stranger and become fuller human beings. At the same time we are invited by God and by Jesus to rest and seek peace in them. To live as a Christian is to be both host to others as well as guest in the presence of God.

What we do here at Marsh Chapel is try to model this form of hospitality. Our stated mission is to be “a heart for the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city.” Our context in an area of the United States with the highest number of people self-described as “nones” … that’s n-o-n-e-s, not n-u-n-s…those having no religious beliefs, according to the Pew Research Center. We are also in the middle of a University setting where young people begin to question the traditions they learned at home and become more skeptical. We exist in a complex matrix of belief systems, enriched by multiple perspectives from around the globe. And despite these challenges, we send out an open invitation to all.

We, as a community of faith, are happy to meet people where they are. We attempt to embody this openness in a place that can sometimes feel resistant and cold to hospitality. To the lost and the lonely, we offer a place to be oneself and to find others. We model Christ’s teachings. We learn from our sisters and brothers from other faith traditions. We welcome all whether believer, questioner, or none. We form community, give grounding, a sense of place, and facilitate growth, personally, spiritually, emotionally, vocationally, and communally. . We invite our students to claim Boston as a home away from home where they can grow and learn from people and perspectives from a many places around the world. We accept the invitations of others to learn and develop in our understanding of the world as well as expand our relationships within the BU community, in the city of Boston, regionally, nationally, and globally

We do all these things, not for our own sake, but because of the higher cause that we serve. For as Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated in his writings while he was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp: “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…not dominating but helping and serving. It must tell [people] of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.”

How will we as a community issue an invitation to the world today? Will we accept an invitation from others? From God? Will we be committed to the yes that we give, or instead be “maybes” or “interesteds” who prioritize other pursuits at the last minute? The decision is ours to make. An ever-present invitation waits for us. How will we respond?

Amen.

–Ms. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

A Tenebrous Edge

Sunday, September 11th, 2016

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Luke 15:1-10

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Preface

Faith walks along a tenebrous edge—a dark, shadowed, cliff walk.

We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All seven billion.

We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All seven billion.

We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All seven billion.

We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All seven billion.

We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All seven billion.

We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.  All seven billion.

Today, September 11, 2016, in memory and honor, we remember our ancient and future hope, a hope of peace. Faith walks along a tenebrous edge—a dark, shadowed, cliff walk.

Along our way, this Lord’s day, as we hike in faith along the tenebrous edge of life, we do so in dire need of memories—of Jeremiah, of America, of Luke, of Nine-eleven.

Jeremiah

Remember Jeremiah.

The prophet Jeremiah excoriated his people, hoping against hope to keep them in faith along a tenebrous edge. For four decades he challenged, criticized, and vilified his beloved country, and its leadership, and its people.  They heeded him not.

The prophet was the victim of the nationalistic hysteria of those who favored revolt, a rejection of their own best selves.  Untrue to themselves and to their history and to their God, and heedless of Jeremiah’s words, his beloved people subsequently suffered the great distress of 587bce, in which the northern Assyrians conquered them, their city was burned, their temple destroyed, their nation buried, and their population deported to Babylon.  Judah became a vassal state, a province of Babylon.  Yet for four decades before this disaster, Jeremiah spoke truth to his wayward people, four decades of unheeded sermons.

Jeremiah lived from about 650 to 580 bce.  King Josiah in 621, heeded his word in part, but himself was killed in 609.  And then the defeat in Carcamesh in 605, and then the partial deportation in 598, and then, the end, apocalypse 587bce.  Along the way Jeremiah counseled diplomacy and even capitulation, to no avail.  He was condemned to death, but survived, thrown in a cistern, yet prevailed, until his own deportation, and probable death, in Egypt.  Anatoth, 2 miles from Jerusalem was his home; Hosea was his model; harlotry the main image:  ‘Again and again he exhorted his countrymen to obedience and persisted in his call to repentance and change of heart although he came to feel that their moral sense had become so atrophied that repentance was impossible.’  He urged the people not to listen to the optimistic predictions of the prophets.  Jeremiah’s opponent, the prophet or pseudo-prophet Hananiah wrongly predicted the defeat of Bablyon, wrongly predicted the return of exiles and wrongly predicted the restoration of the temple treasures.  Is there any word from the Lord, plaintively King Zedekiah asked Jeremiah?

Yes, Jeremiah whispered, there is:  You shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon. (37:17).

Jeremiah exclaimed: False prophets deceive people with their optimism.  The temple has no efficacy in and of itself.  The true circumcision is not of body, but of mind and heart.  Even the Bible can lead astray: Even the Torah may become a snare and a delusion through the false pen of the scribes.

By the way, notice some of the themes from the sixth century bce:  Deportation, false optimism, betrayal of heritage, forgetfulness of history, ineffective leadership, personal failings which damage the nation, turning of a deaf ear toward the voice of God. For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”

Jeremiah, whom we have heard in the background of our worship and preaching for some weeks, speaks to us today, and continues into late October.  He warns of the tenebrous edge.  

May his memory help us.

America

Remember America.

Culture

For us, as part of a national culture now careening toward decay, our memory is failing us. Rhetoric and rancor that befit no civilized people we have somehow accepted, acceded to, accomodated. We forget Emma Lazarus and prefer demagoguery.  We forget Lincoln and support nativism.  We forget King and accept narcissism.  We forget Jesus the crucified and cleave to the cry of triumphalism, out of fear and out of exhaustion and out of amnesia, both a cultural and a Christological amnesia.

Yet on the horizon today we hear and see demagoguery—America First, Birtherist, Misogynist, Racist, Xenophobic, Narcissistic (don’t you love all these Greek rooted words?) bigotry.  I sure did that well. ‘Low Energy’.  That was a one day kill.  Words are beautiful things.

Over time, we get the leadership we deserve.

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.

Philosophy

Some express surprise, a sense of mistake, regarding the willingness of a grand old party, a party of Lincoln, to nominate a particular candidate. Yet there is no surprise or mistake about the nomination in question.  80% of voters in that party agree with these three propositions:  Muslims should be banned.  A wall should be built along the Rio Grande.  Undocumented immigrants of all ages and stages should rounded up, arrested, jailed, and deported. (New York Review of Books, p 8-10, June, 2016) If you are in conversation with a member of such a party, chances are 4 out of 5 that you are in conversation with these views.  No surprise.  No mistake.  You see?  The shadow falls on us.  Shadow.  Dark.  Twilight.  The tenebrous…

Pause, Boston, to remember who and whose you are.   How, why and for what purpose did your forebears arrive here in 1630, and in the years thereafter?  Why did Jonathan Winthrop drift and write out in the Boston harbor that year?  To deport immigrants?  To erase religious freedom?  To wall off and wall up borders?  Hardly.  Their original hope, so often expressed only in the breach in years to come, was the very opposite.  Not to deport immigrants—they were themselves immigrants, as were your people.  You Lutherans in Wisconsin and Iowa.  You French Canadians in New Hampshire and Maine.  You Irish and Italians in Albany and Buffalo.  You Scots and English in North Carolina and Florida.  Not to deport immigrants—they were themselves immigrants, as were your people.  Not to deny religious liberty, but to find it and live it, in a new land, a New World, where your creed could be yours indeed.  Not to fortify borders, but to expand them, and expand them they did, so that the original dream would be city set on a hill, a last best hope, like the moon, a lamp of the poor.  We walk along a precipice, a philosophical cliff, a tenebrous edge.  

May this memory help us.

Luke

Remember Luke.

Though no one says so, and to my knowledge no one has yet so written, Luke 15 may be the most Gnostic of chapters in the New Testament.   As the Gnostics taught, we are trapped in a far country, a long way from our true home, and moved from light to darkness, from found to lost.  As the Gnostics taught, we are meant to get home, to get back home, to get back out from under this earthly, existence, and back to higher ground, to heaven, to the heaven beyond heaven, to the land of light, like a sheep or coin being found and returned.

It is jarring, I give you that, to admit that this most traditional and most popular and most orthodox of parables may well have grown up outside the barn, outside the fences of mainstream Christianity:  ‘I need to get back home.  Back to the land of light.  Back to the pleroma.  Back to the God beyond God.  Find me!’  No ‘Christ died for our sins’, here.  No ‘lamb of God’, here.  No settled orthodox Christology here.  No cross, no gory glory, no Gethsemane, no passion of the Christ, here.  It all comes down to the safety of being found, and included again in the great light of Light.  

The Gospel challenges us to come out from hiding.  Our Sheep parable is also found in Matthew 18: 12-4.  Luke moves the story from an if to a when and from strayed to lost, and from a functional rescue to a joyful recovery—communal rejoicing!

Just how far is Luke from Jeremiah?  Marcion thought so far that the two preached different divinities, and, listening today, you can sense a bit of why that was—one God of anger, wrath, judgement, justice, and fear, one God of love, mercy, embrace, acceptance, and grace; one God of creation, one of redemption; one of the Old and one of the New Testament.  We have Marcion to thank, by the way, for our Bible.  He proposed the first one, around 150ad, made up of Luke (like today) and the letters of Paul.  But the church, rightly, added the Hebrew Scripture, other Gospels and other Letters and other books.  The church spoke of God as both Creator and Redeemer, and so do we.  Moreover, if you listen carefully to Luke, you hear of the darkness there too.

We race in hearing to the joy of discovery.  But anyone who has lost or been lost knows otherwise.  The fright of despair that loss will be permanent.  The darkness of dismay that what is hunted is not immediately found.  The terror, the tenebrous terror, at what that loss of sheep or coin, of person or value, will ultimately mean.  There is more Luke in Jeremiah than you think, and there is more Jeremiah in Luke than you think.

The fall of freshman year can include a sense of loss, and of being lost.  There is more loneliness in college than we usually calculate.  So the daily processes, now underway right here, Lukan they are in spirit and ethos, are so crucial:  to find and help others find and be found; over time to connect and be connected.  Our chaplains Friday offered a table of small pots to paint and flowers to plant, small natural green room decorations, and a gathering for conversation and friendship along the way.  Luke here and in general reminds us that evangelism ever trumps pastoral care, that outreach ever trumps contemplation, that the minister is present for those who are not yet present.

May his memory help us.

Nine-eleven

Along with Jeremiah, America, and Luke we today remember Nine-eleven, as we did so here in 2006 and 2011.  We print again in your bulletin the names of those Boston University alumni who were lost 15 years ago.  In a moment we pause in prayer and quiet to honor them, with an abiding sense of hope.

Rightly to honor those lost and those loved, and fitly to meet this moment, we shall need briefly to look out toward the far side of trouble.  There is, we hope, a far side to trouble.  We may watch from the near side, but there is a far side to trouble as well.  That is our ancient and future hope.  Dewey spoke of a common faith.  Thurman preached about a common ground.  Today we recall a common hope.

This is the hope of peace.  We long for the far side of trouble, for a global community of steady interaction, an international fellowship of accommodation, a world together dedicated to softening the inevitable collisions of life.  This is the hope of peace.

Without putting too fine a point upon it, this hope is the hallmark of the pulpit in which we stand, and the place before which we stand.  If nowhere else, here on this plaza, and here before this nave, we may lift our prayer of hope.  There is a story here, of peace.

Methodists like Daniel Marsh, a wide and diffuse denomination, committed to a handshake and a song, and that shared ‘creed’ of ‘that which has been believed, always, everywhere, and by everyone (so, John Wesley), have honored a common hope of peace.

Mahatmas Gandhi, walking and singing ‘Lead Kindly Light’, embodied this common hope.  Ghandi wrote:  “I am part and parcel of the whole, and cannot find God apart from the rest of humanity”.  A common hope of peace.  Ghandi inspired and taught the earlier Dean of Marsh Chapel, Howard Thurman.

Howard Thurman, hands raised in silence, later wrote:  “The events of my days strike a full balance of what seems both good and bad.  Whatever may be the tensions and the stresses of a particular day, there is always lurking close at hand the trailing beauty of forgotten joy or unremembered peace.”  A common hope of peace.  

Thurman taught King, whose stentorian voice fills our memory and whose sculpture adorns our village green.  King wrote: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality”.  A common hope of peace. Martin Luther King inspired generations of ministers, including the current Dean of this Chapel.

He (Robert Allan Hill) wrote and said (9/16/01, 9/11/06, 9/11/1, 9/11/16):

Have faith, people of faith.

Terror may topple the World Trade Center, but no terror can topple the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, hub of global economies may fall, the economy of grace still stands in the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, communications nexus for many may fall, but the communication of the gospel stands, the World Truth Center, Jesus Christ.

The World Trade Center, legal library for the country may fall, but grace and truth which stand, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The  World Trade Center, symbol of national pride may fall, but divine humility stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, material bulwark against loss may fall, but the possibility in your life of developing a spiritual discipline against resentment (Niehbuhr) still stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

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

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On Beginning a Conversation

Sunday, September 4th, 2016

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Luke 14:25-33

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*On Beginning a Conversation:  

A Psalm, 100

*On Beginning a Conversation:

A Prayer

Gracious God, Holy and Just, Whose Mercy is over all thy works

We invoke thy blessing today as we embark on this new journey

Guide us as we sail out for points unknown, ports unseen, and horizons unexplored

Be our North Star, our compass, sextant

Keep a clean wind blowing through our lives to make us happy and humble

Help us to seek shelter when the gusts of loneliness and failure threaten to capsize

Bless and help us to be a blessing to those commissioned to sail this ship, to the set our course, and to the lead the way

And a special intercession today for all sailors and crew on the good ship 2019

For those on the bridge—wisdom

For those learning the ropes—patience

For those working the in the rigging—a light heart

For those who bid farewell at the gangplank, our parents and sponsors—thanksgiving,

thanksgiving for the birthpangs that brought life, the hands that prepared us to sail, the hearts that forgave and conditioned and seasoned us, for the tear filled eyes and proud hearts that wave to us as the ship leaves the harbor, our mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and our communities of meaning, belonging and empowerment—thanksgiving, thanksgiving.

O Thou who stills waters and calms seas, grant us fair winds, bright skies and an adventurous voyage

Amen

*On Beginning a Conversation:

Questions at the border (4):  What is your name? Where are you from?  Where are you headed?  Do you have anything to declare?

*On Beginning a Conversation:  Read

Here is a matriculation account. Vernon Jordan went to Depauw, a small Methodist school in Indiana, lead by various BU graduates.  His dad, mom, and younger siblings drove him up and dropped him off their in Greencastle, “up south”, Martin King might have said, from their home in Lousiana.  Weeping, his father said, “Vernon, we are not coming back until four years from now.  You are here where your future opens.  At graduation we will be here, sitting in the front row.  This is your time.  I have one word of advice.  Read.  When others are playing, you read.  When others are sleeping, you read.  When others are drinking, you read.  When others are partying, you read.  When others are wasting precious time and encouraging you to do the same, you read.”   He did.  Read, that is.  Last week, on Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. Jordan celebrated his 80th birthday, in the company of Presidents Clinton and Obama.

Speaking of Presidents, Boston University’s third President, Lemuel Merlin, left Boston for Greencastle Indiana, to become the President of Depauw, nearly 100 years ago.  All of our Presidents—Warren, Huntington, Merlin, Marsh, Chase, Christ-Janer, Silber, Westling, Chobanian, and Brown—would salute this Augustinian slogan, ‘take and read’.

For like our gospel lesson today, they and this University, have been interested in what makes a person human, in what makes a human be human, in what lies not outside, but inside, not in measurement but in meaning, not in the visible but in the soulful, not in making a living, only, but in making a life, fully.

*On Beginning a Conversation:  Gaining Soul

Your challenge in these fours years is not only to earn a BA.  Your challenge is to do so without losing your soul.  Your challenge is to do so gaining your soul, tending to the inside, walking in the light, becoming your own best self, finding the place where your heart, ‘the inside’ comes alive, uniting the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, and uniting vocation with avocation, ‘as two eyes make one in sight’.  Frost:

Yield who will to their separation

My object in living is to unite

My vocation with my avocation

As my two eyes make one in sight

Only where love and need are one

And the work is play for mortal stakes

Is the deed ever really done

For heaven and the future’s sakes.

Each Synoptic passage is like a choral piece, including four voices.  There is the Soprano voice of Jesus of Nazareth, embedded somewhere in the full harmonic mix.  In Mark 7, Jesus conflicts with the Pharisaic attention to cleanliness.  There is the alto voice of the primitive church, arguably always the most important of the four voices, that which carries the forming of the passage in the needs of the community.  Here the community is reminded about the priority of the ‘inside’.  The tenor line is that of the evangelist.  Mark here, marking his own appearance in the record.   The baritone is borne by later interpretation, beginning soon with Irenaeus, Against Heresies:  “What doctor, when wishing to cure a sick man, would act in accordance with the desires of the patient, and not in accordance with the requirements of medicine?” (in Richardson, ECF, 377) (If our church music carries only one line, we may be tempted to interpret our Scripture with only one voice, and miss the SATB harmonies therein, to our detriment.)

*On Beginning a Conversation:  Mortality

 

“Is it dead, Papa?”  I was six and could not bring myself to look at it.

“Yes”, I heard him say in a sad and distant way.

“Why did it die?”

“Everything that lives must die”.

“Everything?”

“Yes”.

“You, too, Papa? And Mama?”

“Yes”.

“And me?
“Yes.”, he said.  But then he added in Yiddish, “But may it be only after you live a long and happy life, my Asher.”

I couldn’t grasp it.  I forced myself to look at the bird.  Everything alive would one day be as still as that bird?

“Why”, I asked.

“That’s the way the Ribbono Shel Olom mad this world, Asher.”

“Why?”

“So life would be precious, Asher.  Something that is yours forever is never precious.”

“Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues.  The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success.  The eulogy virtues are deeper.  They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest, or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed (p. xi).”

“People with serious illness have priorities besides simply prolonging their lives…avoiding suffering, strengthening relationships with family and friends, being mentally aware, not being a burden on others, and achieving a sense that their life is complete…our system of technological medical care has utterly failed to meet those needs” (p. 155)

*On Beginning a Conversation:  Scripture

  1. I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” [”tolle lege, tolle lege”] Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.

So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.

 

*On Beginning A Conversation:  Spirit

Class of 2020:  we are here with you because we are here for you (repeat).  We have come from many regions of the world and many ranges of your past experience in order to be present here, to share your presence, and our presence with you.  Here with you, we are here for you.

And yet, quite soon, we will not be present, at least some  of us.  The airplane will taxy down the runway, the gas tank will be filled, and we will be off, absent, or present in thought and care but not in flesh and bone.   We will need to give you over, and to give over your commitment to, your delight in,  and your wonder at each other, to…Another Presence,  God’s Presence.  God’s presence, spirit, or, as the reading for today names it, God’s Abiding in us.  As will you, day by day, so will we need to trust in…Another Presence.  

You will sense the warm breeze, the sunlit horizon, the abiding grace of God’s Presence by its fruit (Galatians 5:23).  Another Presence, of which you become aware, in your daily life together, by sensing the fruit of this presence.  God’s love abides in us and is made whole in us, through these marks, these footprints, these touches of grace.

In Love.  Love is the attentive gift of time, as in the course of a lifetime of marriage.  In Love.

In Joy.  Joy is happy embrace—physical, mental, spiritual, soulful—morning and evening.  In Joy.

In Peace.  Peace is the gift—all these are pure gifts of God—of real listening, listening with a full smile and a glad heart.  In Peace.

In Patience.  A marriage needs persistence, the accelerator, and patience, the break, to make it over the mountains and through the deserts, and across the great plains of life.  Said the Buddha:  patience is self-compassion which gives you equanimity.  In Patience.

In Kindness.  Kindness is the long distance run, the gift of a gracious long distance perspective, known in part in the openness to forgiveness.  In Kindness.

In Goodness.  Real Goodness bursts forth in generosity.  You only have what you give away, and you only truly possess what you have the grace and freedom to offer to someone else.  What you give is what you have.  In Goodness.

In Faith.  Faith is a gift, like all other signs of abiding love.  Faith is the capacity to withstand what and when we cannot understand (repeat).  When you face struggle, challenge, difficulty, may this gift be yours by divine grace.  In Faith.

In Gentleness.  Tea, sunset, backrub, quiet, handholding, prayer, worship.  In Gentleness.

In Self-Control.  Self-Control, a gift of God’s Presence, guides you to work through any and all labors:  in care for family and extended family;  in stewardship of precious material wealth, never plentiful but always sufficient; in sensitivity in intimacy, sexuality, in preparing for an unforeseen future;  in the building of community (you both have great natural gifts and capacities for friendship, as is evident today)—yes religious community, but also neighborhood, town, school, city, and a culture gradually amenable to faith.  In Self-Control.

You will sense the warm breeze, the sunlit horizon, the abiding grace of God’s Presence by its fruit (Galatians 5:23).  Another Presence, of which you become aware, in your daily life together, by sensing the fruit of this presence.  God’s love abides in us and is made whole in us, through these marks, these footprints, these touches of grace.

Into Another Presence, into Another’s Presence, we, your families, loved ones, and friends, now send you, married, from this day forward.  With Ruth may you say: ‘Wither thou goest I will go, wither thou lodgest I will lodge, they people shall be my people, and thy God my God.’

*On Beginning a Conversation:  2 Creeds

Coda

Boston University, proud with mission sure

Keeping the light of knowledge high, long to endure

Treasuring the best of all that’s old, searching out the new

Our Alma Mater Evermore, Hail BU!

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

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