Archive for December, 2016

Now the Birth

Sunday, December 18th, 2016

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Matthew 1: 18-25

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Life and Truth

We long to know the meaning of the gospel in life.  Our hearts yearn for such a sense of meaning, as our minds reach for the same.

Last week, a devoted radio congregant, a weekly listener, wrote to respond to the service and sermon, doing so with an evocation of his years, the early 1960’s, as a student here.  In a PS addition to the letter, he quoted Miguel de Unamuno:  My religion is to seek for truth in life and for life in truth, even knowing that I shall not find them while I live.  The next day, another listener, and friend, said, The Marsh services and sermons are about life and truth.  Said John Wesley; If thine heart be as mine, then give me thine hand.

Matthew

We have left St. Luke, now, to follow the trail of Jesus’ life, death and destiny, this year, in the Gospel of Matthew.   Matthew relies on Mark, and then also on a teaching document called Q, along with Matthew’s own particular material, of which our reading today is an example.  He has divided his Gospel into five sequential parts, a careful pedagogical rendering, befitting his traditional role as teacher, in contrast to Luke ‘the physician’, whose interest was history.   We have moved from history to religion, from narrative to doctrine.  Matthew is ordering the meaning of the history of the Gospel, while Luke is ordering the history of the meaning of the Gospel.  You have moved from the History Department to the Religion Department.  Matthew has his own perspective.

Some of that perspective involves a developing and developed Christology, an understanding of Christ.  For Matthew, the birth narrative conveys the proper ordering of the meaning of the history of the Gospel.  Birth narratives still matter, as if the politics of the last several years in this country were not enough alone to remind us.  Who is he?  Where did he come from?  Who are his parents?  Who are his people?  Who formed him, He who now forms us?

You have missed having read the generations from Adam to Christ.  These are found before our reading.  Fourteen by fourteen by fourteen, are the generations.  From Abraham to David.  From David to Babylon.  From Babylon to Christ.  They run from Abraham to Joseph, who was betrothed to Mary.  To Joseph.  To and through Joseph.

Abraham.  Isaac. Jacob. Judah.  Tamar.  Amminadab.  Boaz.  Ruth.  Jesse. David.  Solomon.  Uriah.  Rehoboam.  Jehoshaphat.  Amos.  Josiah. Jechoniah.  Zerubbabel.  Zadok.  Eleazar.  Matthan.  Jacob.  Joseph.

Every one of these names, earlier in Chapter 1, is worth a sermon!  We could start next week…

Matthew 1 tells of the birth of Christ.  Jesus Christ (though a later scribe dropped ‘Jesus’, though most texts hold to it), to move Matthew a little more away from Luke, pushing religion away from history, you could say.  The freedom we have to interpret the Gospel for ourselves begins with the Gospels, themselves.  Each is different from the others.  John is magnificently the most different of them all, the most sublime, the most mysterious, the most divine.  Matthew tells of the birth of Christ.  Then he will tell of the teaching of Christ.  Then he will tell of the healing of Christ.  Then he will tell of the cross of the Christ.  Then cometh resurrection.  In five moves, he is teaching us, Matthew, the teacher.  He orders the meaning of history, as Luke orders the history of meaning.

In the birth, it is the cradle we most need to notice.  The wood of the cradle, by which Christ is born, is of a type with the wood of the cross, by which Christ is crucified.  Born to give us second birth, the birth of spirit, soul, mind, heart, will, love, faith.  Born to give us second birth.  Is one birth not enough?  No.

You are meant to live in faith, to lead a life of loving friendship, to wake up every morning to the sunshine, the light of God.  You are meant to walk in the light.  Walk in the light.  For this, you need to hear a word spoken from faith to faith.

Christmas, as a cultural break, provides a seam, an opening, for grace, both apart from religion, and as a part of religion.  You are given the light of God, to rest in your hearts, to illumine your hearts and minds, to give you peace and hope, all through the coming year.  We will need that in 2017.  We will need that courage this year.

Matthew is apparently fighting on two fronts, both against the fundamental conservatives to the right, and against the spiritual radicals to the left.  In Matthew, Gospel continues to trump tradition, as in Paul, but tradition itself is a bulwark to defend the Gospel, as in Timothy.  Matthew is trying to guide his part of the early church, between the Scylla of the tightly tethered and the Charibdis of the tether-less.  The people who raised us, in the snows of the towns along the train tracks of the Lake Shore Limited, Albany to Buffalo, and on to Chicago, knew this well.  That is, with Matthew, they wanted to order the meaning of the history of the gospel.  They aspired to do so by opposition to indecency and indifference.  They attempted to do so by attention to conscience and compassion.

Conscience and Compassion: Swimming Merit Badge

At one time, the little towns and smaller cities of Upstate New York were populated with Scout Troops and Methodist Churches, one to foment decency and one to honor difference.  The Scouts, at least, had a list of twelve points in the law of the Scouts that kept a measure of and on decency, whether or not every Scout so lived.  It is important to tell the truth:  so, a Scout is trustworthy.  The Methodists, at least, had a pot luck dinner every Wednesday formed out of wide ranging culinary differences, all brought together, with the inevitable digestive turbulence, e pluribus unum, on a long table with a table cloth not quite long enough for the table.  The world is full of difference:  so, we get together and enjoy one another’s odd casseroles, as a foretaste of the globe.  When asked to bring an artifact of his church, the Methodist brings not a Bible, like the Baptist, or a Rosary, like the Catholic, or a Yarmulke, like the Jew, but—a casserole dish!) Now many of these towns are depopulated, and many lack any longer a strong Scout Troop and many lack any longer a vibrant Methodist Church.  This changes the culture, the civil society, in the rural lake country of New York.  There is less traction for decency and for difference.  I suppose the same—a denigration of decency and difference—might be found too today in Wisconsin, in Michigan, in Ohio, in Iowa, in Western Pennsylvania.   When, at an earlier age, you are not challenged to see and say, ‘That is not decent, that kind of speech’, or you are not challenged to see and say, ‘That disrespects difference, that kind of talk’, then, you are more inclined to accept indecency and indifference, and you may be more vulnerable to demagoguery.  We need more seminarians who will forego the joys of coastal, urban life, and go home to the towns and cities of Wisconsin, of Michigan, of Ohio, of Iowa, of Western Pennsylvania—and of Upstate New York.  It is something to think about, in this era, this season of burgeoning American indecency and indifference, our openness to the normalization of what is not decent and what denigrates difference.

We had moved into Oneida—named for one of the Iroquois tribes—the year before.  By that December friendships had formed.  Our Scout Troop, in the cold week after Christmas, assembled to drive the long, long distance (all of 20 miles!) to Rome (New York, not that to which all roads lead by any means), to swim in a relatively new (YMCA?) pool.  In the ice cold, to be transported to steaming warm water, the gym windows beclouded with moisture, that was a treat.  (The cold this week brought the memory). But to get there we needed four drivers and only three arrived.  It was a Saturday, and my dad was in the church office, upstairs from our Scout Hall, probably trying to write a sermon for the next day, just 14 years after his graduation from BU.  ‘Dad, could you drive for us? ‘.  With no spoken reluctance, he tapped his pipe, closed the notebook, and put on his coat.  We had a blast!  I suppose we worked on swimming merit badge along the way, but all that remains in memory is the laughter, going and swimming, warmth in the deeps of cold, and friendship in the deeps of anonymity.  A Scout is friendly:  he is friend to all, and a brother to every other Scout.

Our family, four children, lived on the minister’s salary, then $6,000 a year, and in the minster’s parsonage.  It was a living.  They, parents, never complained to my remembrance:  they were joyful, proud people.  You live on what you have, so not to burden others.  In those years, because you were eligible to move, to itnerate every spring or so, you planted a garden, taking pride in its planting, not fully knowing if you or another would harvest.  There was a pride in the way these vegetable gardens were planted and hoed and weeded.  ‘They really make a good garden!’—that was high praise in the itinerant ministerial community, which like all such, had its share of gossip.  You take in pride in what you do.  ‘Any profession is great, if greatly pursued’ (O W Holmes).

After the swim, that evening, in the Rome (NY) YMCA, because it was 5 or 6pm, the idea circulated among the swimmers that we should propose to the drivers to stop for a hamburger, at a new hamburger chain, Carroll’s, it was called.  The swimmers had the imagination, but the drivers had the money.  This seemed like a top idea.  Warmed in the swim, and in the fellowship of friendship, I went to my father.  He was filling his pipe, and smiling.  ‘Dad—the other guys are going to stop for a hamburger on the way back home.  Can we go along?’   My father was a genuinely and naturally happy, optimistic man.  He did not let hurt easily confound him. ‘Who ever said life was fair?’, that was his response to unfairness, hurt.  So I remember that night, because his face fell, a little, at the question: can we stop for a hamburger, too? ( I mentioned that my dad was a proud person, I think.)

He said something like ‘maybe’, or ‘we’ll see’.  Then, after a while, with the troop running around and shouting things, I saw him slowly walk over to one of the other drivers, who was a factory owner, a lay speaker, and a friend.  I saw a conversation in process.  I saw my father looking at my friend’s father.  I saw my friend’s father fish out his wallet.  I saw my dad–I just wonder now how much it might have hurt him–accept a few bills, and put them into his own, empty, wallet.   It was the end of the month, the end of year, the week after Christmas, a time of quiet, but a time of lack, I guess.   Having now lived a while, raised some children, seen and felt some hurt, maybe I should better appreciate, a little, what that moment, that willingness to sacrifice pride to give love, may have cost.   In the icy winter, in the atrium of a small YMCA, on a Saturday afternoon, with a sermon back on the desk, still unwritten.  If I had known then what I know now, about what can hurt, I would not have asked.  But if I had not asked, I would not have known, now, what I saw then.   Life asks things of us, when we are least prepared, and when we least expect, but ask it does.  How we respond becomes the alphabet of faith.

For a time, now, across our culture, and thanks in part to the weakening of Scouts troops and Methodist churches in the northern Midwest, indecency and indifference seem to have won the day.  We do not need to recount, in this country.  We need to recant.  Not to recount, but to recant.  We have learned what Jeremiah warned us in September:  you usually cannot know humility without first enduring the bitter suffering of humiliation.  As a people, now, we are learning the one through the other.  Yet. Nonetheless.  Nevertheless.  Hear the Gospel.  It is a first step toward humility.  The further steps come, in middling fashion, upon a long road, in the civil forms of civil society that slowly teach what we seem in part to have forgotten—decency and difference–not indecency nor indifference–but conscience and compassion.

So we live into Advent in a difficult time, and there is little that can be said to minimize that dark difficulty.  No.  No false hope.  We must face it and live it through, whether or not we can live it down.  We simply will have to live it through:  we can attend to affairs of state, to due process under the law, to respect for forms of government.  It will take a decade.

 But remember: Who hopes for what he sees?  We hope for what we do not see, and wait for it with patience.  Zadie Smith knows about birth and a warm swim on a cold winter night:  Things have changed, but history is not erased by change, and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us, opportunities to remake, for a new generation, the conditions from which we ourselves have benefitted…Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated, and reimagined if it is to survive. (NYRB, 12/22/16, p 37).   As did Vaclav Havel: “Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world beyond our horizons.  It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, no matter how it turns out.”

We long to know the meaning of the gospel in life.  Our hearts yearn for such a sense of meaning, as our minds reach for the same.  May such meaning fill your longing and feed your yearning, this Christmas, 2016.

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

 

Sacrament and Discourse

Monday, December 5th, 2016

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Matthew 3: 1-12

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Sacrament and Discourse

Cold River

To get to Bethlehem, each year, we have to walk at least once down by the river Jordan.  It is cold outside, down here along the banks of the roiling river of life.  It is uncomfortable outside, down here along the banks of the rushing river of truth.  It is dark outside, down here along the existential river of soul, of salvation, of all that is sacred.  And there is more.

A river, especially the Jordan, is a symbol of the edge, the end, the last things, the purpose of life, the end of time.    Says Ecclesiastes, ‘All rivers run to the sea, but the sea is not full’.  Our beloved Antonio Machado, whose verse strangely comes back to me after years of my own wandering, says the same: “Nuestras vidas son los rios que van a dar a la mar” (Campos de Castilla).

For down by the river, we hear John the Baptist.  To get to Bethlehem, each year, we have to walk down by the river Jordan.  Here, lurking and skulking and sliding about in the dark recesses of the heart, here is a voice, crying in the wilderness.  It is the voice of conscience.   The voice of him who crieth in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord.  Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’   Down, down, down by the river.

John rankles and offends, because he challenges us to start over.  He is dressed in camel’s hair, the rudest of clothes.  He eats locusts, and wild honey.  Here is a voice.  Not pretty image, not contrived appearance, not considered attire—but voice.  Not face, but voice.  John in the dark, cowering along the caves of the riverbed, crying.   His is the voice of conscience, by which we are brought outside of ourselves and made to hear what we may not want to hear.  And there is more.  His voice reverberates today, down by the river.  Let’s go outside, let’s go down and listen to him, on our way to Bethlehem.

Speaking through our conscience the Baptist illumines our minds, strengthens our hands and warms our hearts.  His discourse, his teaching, guides us toward today’s Sacrament, and the very Sacrament of every one day.

Head

That is, before we lay our gifts at the manger altar, we will want the chill challenge of a thoughtful, thinking faith.  In the long run what is not true cannot be good though it may be news.  John the Baptist comes around at least once a year to remind us so.

We can be thankful for those laboring at night in the lonely libraries and cubicles and offices nearby, to stretch our understanding that it might embrace our faith which is seeking that same understanding.  Theology matters.  

Not long ago, many of us had the joy and the privilege to listen at a faculty retreat to some of the newest, youngest adventures in thoughtful reflection on faith.  Words from the wise, words to the wise.

One young biblical scholar reminded us: The Christian Bible…has never been stable; each book and collection has undergone a long process of transmission and reception that continues to this day…The Bible remains a living document preserving not only a diverse body of texts but also the priorities of those who have transmitted it.

One young psychologist of religion reminded us: We are disposed to misunderstand.  We live in a pluri-verse, a conversation across the boundaries of different lands.  We witness the inevitable but not necessary collapse of ambiguity into certainty.  Sometimes, especially when we are trying truly distinguish cruelty from care, we need a sense of ambiguity.  We may need to return again and again to Nicholas of Cusa and the ‘doctrine of learned ignorance’.

One young historian reminded us of the central role women have played in global missions: empathy is like oxygen.  When you feel somebody experience you deeply, it is like air, like oxygen.

One young philosophical theologian reminded us: as we look at religious experience we have to hold ourselves accountable to empirical research.

An older, wiser teacher, reminded this academic circle of an academic peril:  We sometimes mistakenly think that if you can get it down on paper you don’t have to live it.

Some of you will have had the benefit of those who showed by example how to think about faith, how faithfully to think.  We want to live in our own version of the memory Tony Judt had of Manhattan decades ago: “Manhattan in those decades was the crossroads where original minds lingered”. (NYT 11/8/10) We could hear his sentence as ecclesiology.  So too the church:  a crossroads where original minds linger.

This autumn, it may be, our learning has been on the street not in the library, in the culture, not in the school, in the meaning of what things mean—our Advent 2016 fordable river.

‘When I use a word’, said Humpty Dumpty, in a rather scournful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less’.  ‘The question is’, said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things’ (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass).

What you say you meant, in all sincerity, by a word, a choice, a sermon, or a vote, is not in any significant measure what your word, choice, sermon, or vote means. Its meaning is in its impact, not its intention.  Its meaning is in its effect, not in its sentiment.  It means what it does—to others.

My sister cried when I said something to her. ‘But Mom, I didn’t mean to hurt her.  I didn’t mean it that way’.  ‘I’m sure you didn’t, Bobby’.   Now go to your room.  No supper.’  You may not have meant it to hurt (let’s be generous here), but hurt it did.

Words—acts, deeds, votes—have their meaning in the future they create, not in some sentiment of the heart.  We are responsible—especially the preacher—not for what we say but for what we are heard to say.  What you meant by that vote is not what it means.  What it means is what it does.

There is no way, that is, in living the Christian gospel, to ‘normalize’ demagoguery.  Not in racist dimension, not in its mistreatment of women, not in its denigration of color, difference, globe, disability or otherness.  Demagoguery, from any position, deserves and must receive nothing but condemnation, contempt and resistance.  There is no way, in announcing the gospel of grace, to ‘normalize’ such.  Or at least saith John the Baptist.

Hand

Then too, your hands are touching and helping others.

Our students for many years engaged a citywide CROP walk to combat world hunger, as the visit this week of a 2011 graduate, Tyler Sit, recalled.  Our Methodist fellowship has worked at the Cooper Mission in Roxbury.  Our partnership with the University and with Habitat for Humanity built a house.  Many have continued to prayerfully support Refugee Immigration Ministries. Some of you will be heading off for a week of Alternative Spring Break service next year.  As a congregation you continue to support the BMC food pantry.  In short, ‘hands on’ forms of service continue to thrive here at Marsh Chapel, thanks to the lay leadership offered in these many areas.

What we love, we should love ardently.  Service helps us ground our faith in action, and thereby protects us from betraying the life into which we have been called.  Tragedy is to betray the life into which you have been called, or the profession into which you have been called, or the calling into which you have been called.

Our current generation of students excels at participatory service ministry, and teaches its value by example.

This Advent, for example, our students say:  

We invite you to consider collecting items for donation to populations in need – specifically for local food banks, homeless shelters, children’s charities, and disaster relief.  For those of you in the Boston area, we encourage you to bring your donations to Marsh Chapel at the end of each week and we will deliver them at each of the following nonprofit organizations – Greater Boston Food Bank, Pine Street Inn, Cradles to Crayons, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).   For those outside the Boston area, we encourage you to gather a group – maybe in your home congregation, at your workplace, or in your neighborhood – to participate in this activity together and to find locations for donation near you! Here are some websites that can help you locate nonprofit organizations that accept the kinds of donations we will be suggesting:  Food Banks; Homeless Shelters; Children’s Charities; UMCOR; and, Lutheran World Relief, UCC Disaster Ministries, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Episcopal Relief and Development, Red Cross

Heart

Head and hands finally rely on the heart.  In the winter we learn to stay warm. Warmth, warmth, warmth.  We are dying of cold, not of darkness.  It is not the night that kills, but the frost (Unamuno). At night our eyes are sharpened to see shapes in the shadows.  When we experience diminishment we also hold more closely those things which mean most to us.   With age comes wisdom.

Most of ministry, these years, has been in snow.   In smaller assignments, the snow fell often on afternoons given over to sharing the gospel, one by one.  What a privilege!  Would that more, and better, and sooner, would heed the invitation to ministry.  At the kitchen table.  Over coffee.  In a parking lot. Within a small office.  At the hospital.  At school.  With lunch.  In a nursing home.  In the barn, at dusk, milking time.  In the sugar house.  On a tractor.  

Or in a pastoral visit, of the following sort.

Snow swirled that day, as the Nursing Home hove into view.  Gladys deserved a call, on the line between life and death, and the preacher came prepared, or so he thought.

Would you like me to pray with you, Gladys?  Oh, it is not necessary.  Of course I love all the prayers of the great church, particularly, now that I see little, those I carry in memory from our old liturgy.  But I am fine.

Perhaps you would like to hear the Psalms?  My grandmother appreciated them read as she, uh… You mean as she lay dying?…Yes.  Oh, it is not necessary.  I mean I do love the Psalms, and was lucky to have them taught rote to me at church camp so that they rest on my memory, like goodness and mercy, all the days of my life.  But I am fine.

I know that you sang in our choir.  Would you like some of the hymns recited for you?  Oh that is not necessary.  I do so love music! I can sing the hymns from memory to myself at night!   I found my faith singing, you know.  It just seemed so real when we would sing, when we were younger, around the piano, around the campfire, around the church.  I knew in my heart, I knew Whom I could trust.  But I am fine.

I brought communion for you in this old traveling kit.  Oh, that is not necessary.  We can have communion if you like.  It is so meaningful to me.  I can feel my husband right at my side, knee to knee.  After he died, I could not hear anything that was said in your fine sermons for so long, my heart hurt so loudly.  But I still could get grace in communion.  But I am fine.

So the snow was falling, as it does in ministry in our region, the north, that blanket of snow, blanket of proximate mortality, blanket of grace.  Snow on snow…flake on flake…Just like a preacher, he thought, nothing to offer, but to stand and wait and wring the hands…

Gladys, is there anything that I could bring you today?  As a matter of fact, there is…Tell me about our church…I have been out of worship for so long… How is the church doing this Christmas?…Are the children coming and being taught to give their money to others?  And what of the youth?  Are they in church and skating and sledding and hayriding and falling in love?  Tell me about the UMW and their mission goal. Did they make it?  A dollar means so little to us and so much in Honduras and China.  And tell me about the building… Are the Trustees preparing for another generation?  It is so easy to defer maintenance…What about the choir—are they singing from faith to faith?…Tell me about your preaching, and the DS, and our Bishop…What is going to happen with our little church …Tell me, please, tell me about our church…It is where I find meaning and depth and love…That is what you can bring me today.

Speaking through our conscience the Baptist illumines our minds, strengthens our hands and warms our hearts.  His discourse, his teaching, guides us toward today’s Sacrament, and the very Sacrament of every one day.

As Howard Thurman wrote,

When the song of the angels is stilled, 
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allen Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel