A Tenebrous Edge

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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 Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

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