Archive for January, 2017

For The Time Being

Sunday, January 29th, 2017

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 5:1-12

Click here to hear the sermon only

Preface

He is the Way

Follow Him through the land of unlikeness

You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures

 

He is the Truth

Seek Him in the kingdom of anxiety

You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years

 

He is Life

Love him in the world of the flesh

And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

For the Time Being

For now.  For the time being.  Whether or not ethics are situational, they are certainly epochal.  Each time, each season brings another climate for decision, for life.

New occasions teach new duties

Time makes ancient good uncouth

One must upward still and onward

Who would keep abreast of truth

A woman in pregnancy knows for sure the arrival of another epoch—for the time being.   A student in the struggle winter of freshman year, when novelty has given way to normalcy, and autumn to snow, knows for sure the arrival of another epoch—for the time being.  A nation which has swung by political pendulum from liberal left to hard right, on the basis of 77,000 votes along the country roads of three states, knows for sure the arrival of another epoch—for the time being.  A man in Shakespeare’s seventh stage, or nearing it, sans sight sans hearing sans agility sans memory sans sleep sans energy, knows for sure the arrival of another epoch—for the time being.   Our conditions condition our decisions, epoch by epoch—for the time being.

For the time being, we shall want daily to recall Emma Lazarus and Martin Neimoller, to remember who and whose we are, in promise and in warning.

Lazarus:  

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door

Neimoller:

First they came for the (Communists, Socialists, Trade Unionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews ) and I did not speak out because I was not a (Communist, Socialist, Trade Unionist, Jehovah’s Witness, Jew )

Then at last they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out

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.

Every word is meant for a particular time, but not for all time.  For all time, and for our time, we have the staggering responsibility to fit the teaching to a new era, another epoch.  Whether or not ethics is situational, it is certainly epochal.  Our response and resistance to a megalomaniacal regime can be guided by but not directed by these precious verses of Holy Scripture.  Their application is, to use a marvelous American idiom, ‘up to you’.   And this will be difficult.  Policies we can adjust.  Fear mongering we must resist.

‘A literary work or a fragment of tradition is a primary source for the historical situation out of which it arose, and is only a secondary source for the historical details for which it gives information’ (45).  (Wellhausen.)

Some of that perspective involves a developing and developed Christology, an understanding of Christ.  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. Our forebears taught us so.  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 both to conscience and to compassion.

For example:  we enter now a reading and rendering of the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the most beloved and best remembered of Jesus’ teachings.   At the outset, we face a raging river to cross.  For when were these teachings meant?  For all time, for Jesus’ time, for Matthew’s time, for our time—for the time being?

It Means What it Does

In July of 1976, a small congregation gathered just up the hill from New Hope Mills, a pancake flour maker, an old grist mill.  That Methodist church had endured the fumblings of an untrained, unordained minister all summer.  One Sunday he mistakenly, errantly left his sermon, titled, ‘Forgiveness’, across the road in the parsonage.  Mumbling something about forgiving and forgetting, he left the pulpit and hustled across the road to retrieve the homily, as the choir, four in number, soprano in voice, sang several favorite verses of In the Garden, in any case a weekly occurrence. A cow mooed in the field beside the church.  Later that week, he stopped to see the young family of the volunteer Fire Chief in New Hope.  It happened that short comment, innocuous, had been made about fire protection, in the sermon.  To what remarkable end that illustration may have been sent out, we know not, remember not.  Said the wife, “John and I heard your sermon very clearly on Sunday, and, taking it to heart, have decided that he will quit his role as chief and resign from the department”.   The sermon, sadly, meant nothing of the kind, in the preacher’s intention, in his heart of hearts, in his preacherly imagination.  But the sermon means what it does, not what its intention meant.  The preacher is responsible, not for what he says, but for what he is heard to say.  What it means is not what it meant but it what it does. We clarified in conversation, what was misspoken in homily:  a note to the wise about the critical importance of visitation, and the critical homiletical need to avoid misunderstanding if at all possible.  The sermon’s meaning is not in the purified intentions of the preacher, but in what it means—what it does—in life.  Are children thereby baptized?  Do any learn to tithe?  Do newcomers receive welcome into worship?  Is God glorified?  Have you fruit?  But Mr. Wesley, I meant well.  But did you do well?

‘What it means is what it does’—act, word, speech, deed, all.  This year has provided an expensive way for 340 million people to learn a first lesson in biblical hermeneutics and theological interpretation.   You voted.  You may have meant one thing.  The meaning of your word or deed is something else.  The road to hell is paved with—good intentions.  We don’t need to recount as much as we need to recant.  Jeremiah, it appears was right:  you only learn humility on the far side of humiliation.

And now, for the time being, we will simply have to live it through.  Not all order is godly, especially when purchased with the counterfeit currency of oppression and injustice.  But a quiet and peaceable life itself requires order, and when we have such, we are right to give thanks.   Especially in the later New Testament writings there is preserved for us a mature recognition of the value in things done ‘decently and in order’.  The body.  Birds of the air. Lilies of the field.  Reminders of what Marilyn Robinson might call ‘the givenness of things’.  

A Common Longing

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our warming globe, caught in climate change, will be cooled by cooler heads and calmer hearts and careful minds.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our dangerous world, armed to the teeth with nuclear proliferation, will find peace through deft leadership toward nuclear détente.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our culture, awash in part in hooliganism, will find again the language and the song and the spirit of the better angels of our nature.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our country, fractured by massive inequality between rich children and poor children, will rise up and make education, free education, available to all children, poor and rich.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our nation, fractured by flagrant unjust inequality between rich and poor children, will stand up and make health care, free health care, available to all children, poor and rich.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our schools, colleges and universities, will balance a love of learning with a sense of meaning, a pride in knowledge with a respect for goodness, a drive for discovery with a regard for recovery.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our families, torn apart by abuse and distrust and anger and jealousy and unkindness, show kindness and pity to one another.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our decisions in life about our callings, how we are to use our time and spend our money, how we make a life not just a living, will be illumined by grace and generosity.

We offer a common prayer that, over time, and by hard experience, we may learn that the meaning of a word, a deed, an act is not found in the sentiment or feeling in which it was uttered or offered, but just in what it does for others, not in what we meant by it, but in what it does to others.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our grandfathers and mothers, in their age and infirmity, will receive care and kindness that accords with the warning to honor father and mother that you own days be long upon the earth.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that women—our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters, granddaughters, all—granted suffrage less than 100 years ago, will be spared any and all forms of harassment and abuse, verbal or physical, on college campuses, in homes and families, in offices and bars, in life and work, and long having suffered and now having suffrage, will in our time rise up to be honored, revered, and compensated, without reserve, but with justice and mercy.

We offer a common prayer, finally a prayer not of this world, but of this world as a field of formation for another, not just creation but new creation, not just life but eternal life, not just health but salvation, not just heart but soul, not just earth, but heaven.

Coda

For the time being…our Holy Scripture, including our beloved Sermon on the Mount, the most cherished of the Lord’s remembered teachings, may guide us but cannot direct us.  

Brueggeman:  not just moving people from outsiders to insiders, but also moving people from forgetters into rememberers and from beloved children to belieful adults (Biblical Perspectives…94).  You need to read.

Hoekendijk:  The first task of the church is not to speak but to be the church, a community, where object lessons in Christian life and faith are given unintentionally…The effective way of evangelism is to be the church and to pioneer in the field of social relationship and community service. The gospel is not good advice, but good news. You need to worship.

One specific:  join us tomorrow on Marsh Plaza at 3pm in support of our Boston University Arabic Society, or say a prayer, read a psalm, send a note or check at 3pm

In sum, while our blessed Sermon on the Mount can and does guide us, it does not direct us, in the end.  We are charged, challenged and required to make sense of our own epoch, and by faith to live in faith.  While this is exhilarating in its freeing of the will, it is staggering in its requirement of the man or woman of faith.

You may feel empty.  Note the fullness promised emptiness in the Beatitudes.  ‘The reality of the vessel is the shape of the void within it.’ (Lao Tze)

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

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

In the Moonlight

Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

Click here to hear the full service

John 1:29-42

Click here to hear the sermon only

Preface

Wise Nicodemus saw such light
As made him know his God by night.

O for that night! Where I in him
Might live invisible and dim.

We are a people who languish in the doldrums of a pervasive, shared disappointment. A cultural disappointment: technological, relational, conversational, rhetorical—spiritual (including donkeys and elephants and others). After a year of disappointment, broadly shared: disappointment of process, outcome, option, influence, rhetoric, values, and virtues. While not universal, and while certainly varied in focus, a common disappointment robes the vast majority across our land. We pause in prayer under a night sky, in the moonlight.

Hear Good News: Faith discovers in disappointment a truth that sets free. A freeing of the will.

Remember that the ancient and holy scriptures afford a space for moonlight, as well as for sunlight.

The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge.

At night, there is moonlight. A song in the night. A weeping that tarries for the night. A reflected light. A pale moonlight.

If I say let only the darkness cover me, and the night about me be as night: even the darkness is not dark to thee; the night is as bright as the day; for darkness is as light with thee.

Out in the wilderness, late on a winter night, say it is a clear night, you see by a different light. A refracted illumination. A reflected brightness. A luminosity of a different measure, kind, sort and type. The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow brings the luster of midnight to objects below. The corn stubble in the field gives its shadow out from the dark brightness of the night.

Look around you here in the dark. Train your eyes to see what only shows up in moonlight.

The heavens are telling the glory of God. That is sunlight. And the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. That is moonlight.

Day to day pours for speech. That is sunlight. And night to night declares knowledge. That is moonlight.

There is a wonder of the heavens. And there is a wonder of the firmament. There is a wonder of the day. And there is a wonder of the night. There is a wonder at life. And there is a wonder at death. There is a wonder at birth, brightness, gaiety, satiety, summer, joy, victory, discovery and all that lives. And there is a wonder at death, darkness, despond, emptiness, acedia, defeat, loss and all that limits life. One wonder is exuberant, and the other is melancholy—one of the day and one of the night. But both are wonder and both are ours and both are witnesses to faith, a faith that uncovers freedom in the heart of disappointment.

The heavens are telling the glory of God. And the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.

Day to day pours for speech. And night to night declares knowledge.
As Nicodemus knew (H Vaughn):

Wise Nicodemus saw such light
As made him know his God by night.

O for that night! Where I in him
Might live invisible and dim.

John Sees

On Christmas Day, we newly remembered, by John, grace in dislocation. Their Johannine Grace in the heart of dislocated darkness: our Epiphany of grace, by Jesus, in our own experience.

In Baptism, that of John today, who comes and sees, we newly remember, by John, freedom in disappointment. Dislocated out of the synagogue, they also had been disappointed, by Jesus. He did not, had not, would not return. Not Parousia, Armageddon, Speculation: but Paraclete, Artistry, Spirit. Not the end is here, but the Lord is near. And in that trauma of abject disappointment, by Jesus, their Epiphany of freedom! The hour is coming? No. The hour NOW IS. Our Epiphany, by Jesus, of freedom, right in the teeth and belly of supreme disappointment.

When you have known disappointment together. When you have endured disappointment together. When you have suffered disappointment—together. When together you have faced disappointment.

Then, in freedom, you see. Then, in the moonlight, you see. Not the freedom of the will (Pelagius), but the freeing of the will (Augustine).

Come and see. See. It is the freeing of the will that allows moonlit sight, that at last allows a night vision, tenebrous vision.

John knows the twilight. His is the twilight Gospel, with which our lectionary, our liturgy, our day light predilections are least at ease. Hence the others, on a three-year cycle, all have their space, their own room: John sleeps in the stairwell, outside, occasionally, as here in January, granted a comfortable night’s rest, an occasional, limited hearing.

John knows night. All the chapters 13-17 are Jesus speaking at night, a twilight farewell discourse. All the chapters 18-20 are burial, visitation, inspiration, at night. Nicodemus appears in Chapter 3, 12, and 19, only at night. The darkest, bitterest words of the New Testament are found in chapters 7-8, a nighttime of rhetoric. And Chapter 1: the light shines—in the darkness; the true light that enlightens everyone—was coming into the world. John knows night.

John knows the night of disappointment, shrouded by these rhetorical forms. John faces what others avoided: disappointment. The greatest early hope of the primitive Christian church—its rejoinder to doubting contestants, its encouragement in the face of suffering, its expectation of scores settled, its very marrow and meaning and mane, its name—was the expected, imminent, soon and very soon return, Parousia, coming of Christ in power on the clouds of heaven. Read again the Revelation. All for nought. Into the third generation, it became clear, all arithmetical recalculations aside thank you 2 Peter, that Jesus was not coming again, at least not any time soon. John looked dismay in the eye, admitted disappointment, and then—SURSUM CORDA—saw by moonlight the freedom of the gospel. Spirit, not Jesus. Presence, not absence. Artistry, not apocalypse. Soul, not speculation. Here and now, not there and then. Real freedom.

It is the shunted aside lectionary avoided Fourth Gospel, John, you need when the chips are down. We saw this on Christmas Day—dislocation illumined grace. We see it today—disappointment illumines freedom. When it gets dark enough, you can see the stars. But you have to wait and watch as the sun goes down, down, down below the horizon to your left, and then wait and watch as the moon comes up, up, up, over the horizon to your right. And it is harder to see, at night. But, mirable dictu, you see some things better. In the moonlight.

The Gospel is not a prophecy fulfilled, but a mystery revealed. John is very different. Be careful! *Step lightly: this (1:29) is John—the Baptist—yet not named so. *Jesus is not baptized by John in John. *Behold: the Lamb of God who takes away sin: this is the only use of this line in the Bible, yet we use it monthly for eucharist, so think it is common. *In thy light we see light. *He ranks before me because he was before me. *The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world. *For this (John the Baptist) came that He might be revealed.

So: Come…and…see. Over a long time, the community of John—say in Ephesus, say in the years following 90ad, gradually and painfully came to see. They came to see…Him. They came to see that He, and those in Him, through Him, were bathed in glory. Bathed not only in beauty, but bathed in glory. His glory. Glory as of the Father’s only Son. Glory. Come…and…see.

Imagine their antiphonal music in worship: “I am the vine”. “I am the door.” “I am the door”. “I am the vine”. (Insight received from John Ashton).

In a small upper room. In the evening. In candle light. In seclusion. Away from their formerly beloved, now feared, perhaps familial, opponents, whom they now held in odium theologicum. In reading. In communion. In silence. In utterance. Knees on hard, cold floors. Hands outstretched. Eyes closed. In a small upper room.

We See

In the moonlight, in the freedom that a twilight disappointment alone can give, we see things we otherwise would miss.

We have a shared national disappointment. To repeat: let it be firmly asserted that this lacrimose loss is not limited to donkeys or elephants, left or right, loser or winner. The disappointment, though not universal, by large measure, is broadly shared, if variously construed, and variously defined. Look around, in the moonlight. Let your eyes adjust over the next many months and years. We will come around again in four years to such a period as we had last year. But now: be ready to receive what the moonlight shows. The greater light to rule the day; the lesser light to rule the night. What do you see, now, at midnight? What did you learn during the day, that now you can see, during the night? In the moonlight.

In the moon light we see…

We see that we see what we want to see, or what we expect to see, both pollsters and others.

We see that we have penchant for entertainment, sometimes to the detriment of information.

We see that big, unexpected, bad things can and do befall people, both individuals and countries (as if any of us in Boston following April 2013 needed a reminder).

We see that social location, your choices in standing and sitting, prayer and worship, volunteering and voting, come Sunday and come weekday, do matter. Particularly in voting.

We see the ongoing corrosive effects of race and sex, still with us long after emancipation and suffrage. The exuberant gathering on the Boston Common yesterday, wherein we greeted so many of you, nourished us and others.

We see that we tend, tragically, to underestimate the power of hatred and evil, having neglected too long our careful reading of Niebuhr.

We see that we learn humility from humiliation, and discipline from pain. ‘Advice we humor. Pain we obey’ (Proust).

We see that our view of history is dim, our grasp of history is weak, our knowledge of history is partial, our respect for history is far too limited. Give us today, in 140 letters. So, the marvelous Monday BU MLK observance nourished us—in song, chorus, instrument, band, dance, speech, reflection, and remembrance

We see that we neglect gathering, including ordered worship, to our peril.

Now we see, in the freedom following through disappointment. Now we see. Come and see. In your own experience. To live it down we will have to live it through.

You See

I am told that a recent film titled ‘Moonlight’ carries the story of a young man’s acquisition of freedom through and throughout the harrowing experiences of disappointment. What about you?

Once you have sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept, you may just find a wise freedom. That job you knew was meant for you—gone to another. That degree you most wanted to pursue—not going to happen. That labor, unfulfilled, to make a marriage go that would not go. That dream deferred, making the heart sick. Once the disappointment is faced, squarely, admitted, honestly, endured, faithfully, then a freedom of another dimension may enter.

You may have offered yourself, say, as a candidate for a high office. How much we owe, and how little we honor, those who are willing to run and not win. By the way, winning is not always success, and losing is not always failure. They are not the same, losing and failing. They are not the same, winning and succeeding. So Unamuno: we truly do not know when we have succeeded. You lost the race, which is not always to the swift, by the way. So. Now what? You may seize, or, better, be seized by, a full freedom. Now you are free! Go and make climate change, said Al Gore. Go and bring world peace, said Jimmy Carter. You may just find, as a friend said to another, following a bitter defeat: You have not so much been denied, as spared. Not denied, but spared. You did what you could. People know who you are. They had their chance. They had their chance. Now you have yours, another, perhaps richer, maybe truer, possibly freer. Let faith hold you, and mold you, and enfold you in a greater freedom, that of God’s cruciform love. One high proud moment here at Boston University came three years ago when we had dinner around a small table with John Lewis, whose suffering on the Edmund Pettis bridge in 1965, a profound, gruesome disappointment, opened over time into a great life of faith, a faith that found freedom right in disappointment.

Coda

We are a people who languish in the doldrums of a pervasive, shared disappointment.

The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge.

At twilight there is moonlight.

If I say let only the darkness cover me, and the night about me be as night: even the darkness is not dark to thee; the night is as bright as the day; for darkness is as light with thee.

Out in the wilderness, late on a winter night, say it is a clear night, you see by a different light. A refracted illumination. A reflected brightness. A luminosity of a different measure, kind, sort and type. The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow brings the luster of midnight to objects below. The corn stubble in the field gives its shadow out from the dark brightness of the night.

Or with Howard Thurman, out on the beach. The sun has set, the moon has risen, the stars are out, the wind is light: the ocean and the night surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by any human behavior. The ocean at night gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the ebb and flow of circumstance. Death would be a small thing I felt in the sweep of that natural embrace.

Look around you here in the dark. Train your eyes to see what only shows up in moonlight. Disappointment is the seedbed of freedom. In disappointment there is a discovery, a truth that sets free.

Wise Nicodemus saw such light
As made him know his God by night.

O for that night! Where I in him
Might live invisible and dim.

Your Name Matters, or Wisdom and Theological Imagination

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

Click here to hear the full service

Romans 16:1-7

Proverbs 8:22-36

Luke 7:24-35

Click here to hear the sermon only

I’d like to thank Dean Hill for inviting me to preach this sermon on this Sunday. It is genuinely humbling and more than a bit intimidating to stand in this pulpit on Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, but I am grateful for the opportunity to bring a word to you this morning. Would you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

During my senior year of college I landed a pretty great job. It paid well, it was hands on, and I learned something new every day I worked. The Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center, BU’s archives, holds a large portion of materials from Martin Luther King, Jr., an alumnus of the school, and HGARC had received a grant to reorganize the materials and create a searchable database with better metadata with more information about the contents of the collection to make it better accessible and searchable for researchers. I somehow got to be an assistant with the project, which meant that for several years I spent ten to fifteen hours a week with boxes of materials shared by King with the university. I had worked a summer for the archives already as a general archival assistant, helping unpack and sort materials arriving from incoming collections. It was an exciting and very messy summer of opening boxes, not knowing whether you’d find old shoes or a collection of handwritten original scores. Working with King’s materials, I thought, would be even better. These materials were already archived; so I thought that all the boring stuff would be gone already. As I walked into the small room with neat blue boxes, I thought they must be full to the brim of speech drafts, sermon notes, handwritten correspondence, all coming from the pen of King himself. And, yes, these materials were there, (I did spend a few months with another staff person alphabetizing several thousand letters, mostly sent to King), but they do not comprise the majority of the collection.

No, most of the materials in the archive are mundane, day-to-day materials. I mostly worked on the materials from the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), but I also did some small work on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The Montgomery Improvement Association, which was formed to oversee the Montgomery Alabama bus boycott in 1955, was formed not by MLK having a revelation sitting in his office at Dexter Avenue one day, but by a group of people, especially Jo-Ann Robinson, president of the Women’s Political Council, and E.D. Nixon, head of the local NAACP. Robinson and Nixon organized the one-day boycott that ended with a meeting, at Holt Street Baptist Church, at which preachers, teachers, and the community decided to transform the one-day protest into an ongoing one. The decision made, they organized, formed the MIA, and set up committees. So many committees. There were carpools to be organized, flyers to be leafletted, funds to be raised and distributed, walkers to escort, lawsuits to be filed, there was a lot of work to do, and a lot of organizing that work required. King was speaking from collective experience when he said in 1968’s “The Other America”: “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability, it comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so we must always help time and realize that the time is always right to do right.”[1]

So these blue-grey archival boxes mostly held not speeches and sermon notes from King, but the minutiae of progress and the detritus of change. Meeting minutes, programs for Monday night church meetings, newsletters, financial documents, typewritten lists of names and phone numbers of persons who had cars and were willing to drive, committee membership rolls.  Pamphlets, flyers, yellowed newsclippings, more meeting minutes. In these scraps of paper, I learned how change happens, I learned how movements are made, and I learned that it is the people, and not a personality, who make change. For good and for evil, for good and for evil, it is the people, and not a personality, who make change.

Many of these people were women, women whose names I didn’t know: Jo-Ann Robinson, who led the Women’s Political Council, Johnnie Carr, the youth director and secretary of the Montgomery NAACP and the future president of the MIA, Aurelia Browder, whose protest, arrest, and subsequent lawsuit over Montgomery bus segregation ultimately led to the successful end of the boycott, Irene West, arrested during the boycott, Georgia Gilmore, founder of the Club from Nowhere who fundraised for the boycott, Hazel Gregory, secretary and board member of the MIA, Maude Ballou, King’s secretary, Erna Dungee executive board member of the MIA.[2] Women were members of the MIA executive board, kept its books, got arrested, fundraised, and organized both out front and behind the scenes of the movement. Their names matter, and I wanted to pause to raise their names before us today. Jo-Ann Robinson, Johnnie Carr, Aurelia Browder, Irene West, Georgia Gilmore, Hazel Gregory, Maude Ballou, Erna Dungee.

We’ve also heard some unfamiliar names today in our first reading from Romans 16. Unless you keep up with the daily lectionary, where you will come across it on September 25 and 26th this year, you likely won’t have heard this text from Romans 16:1-7 before. It’s not a part of the Sunday Revised Common Lectionary, because, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, it’s largely a list of names. The prescripts, postscripts, the long lists of names and the greetings which accompany them are often excised from our liturgy, partially out of mercy to the lectors, but really out of a desire to communicate theology in the liturgy. This liturgical bias even led some biblical scholars to excise Romans 16 from the rest of the letter. How could Romans, the height of Pauline theology, especially for Protestants, have such a mundane, overlong list of names? This chapter must be a fragment of some other, more ordinary missive. Thankfully, that argument has largely been overturned. I would argue, though, that these prescripts and postcripts, these names matter to more than just biblical scholars interested in onomastics, text criticism, or the social status of the earliest followers of Christ. These names matter for us as the church. They matter for our theology, they matter for our ecclesiology, they matter for the work they did, the change they brought, and they matter because they are our foremothers and fathers in faith. Their names matter. Phoebe the deacon; Prisca and Aquilla, coworkers with Paul in Christ, the assemblies that meet in their house, Epaenetus, first fruit of Asia in Christ, Mary, the hard-worker, and Andronicus and Junia, kinfolk, fellow-prisoners who are noteworthy among the apostles and who were in Christ before Paul was.[3]

I’d like to focus on Junia for a moment, Junia, that woman who is so prominent among the apostles. Thanks to the work of Bernadette Brooten and then Eldon Epp, we learn that Junia for much of the last century or so of biblical scholarship and translation has been misgendered over disagreements about a Greek accent. Junia, a common name for Roman women, was understood as a woman by all early Christian writers of late antiquity, by scholarly Greek New Testaments from Erasmus in 1516 to Nestle’s edition of 1927, by “all extant early translations of Romans 16:7 (from Greek into Old Latin, Vulgate, Sahidic and Bohairic Coptic, and Syriac versions),”[4] and by almost all English translations from Tyndale in 1526 up until the late 19th century, including the beloved and (for some Christians) inerrant King James Version. In the late 1800’s, though, some biblical scholars decided that these sources were wrong, and that translators and editors from Jerome to Erasmus to Tyndale were mistaken. According to these scholars, Junia wasn’t Junia, she was actually Junias. Which is actually pretty funny, because there are no attestations of the male name Junias anywhere in antiquity. No matter, scholars suggested that perhaps Junias (although unattested) is a shortened form of another name, Junianus, a hypothesis that does not stand up well under scrutiny, and which requires a more complicated reading strategy than just taking the name as a commonly attested feminine accusative form. Some scholars also read certain early manuscripts as supporting a different Greek accent to argue that other early Christians read Junia as Junias,[5] which is again pretty funny, because early manuscripts aren’t accented. Why did these scholars literally make up a man’s name to create a textual critical controversy where one had not been before? The answer becomes clear when you look at the praise for Junia and Andronicus; they followed Christ before Paul did, and they are people worth noting among the apostles, among those sent out to share the gospel. Ah, there’s the rub. The issue, it seems, is that there is a woman named in the canonical New Testament as an apostle.

What leads scholars to overlook their evidence, to see things that aren’t there, and to unsee what is right before them? I don’t think it’s malice or ill-will, but I would argue that it is a lack of theological imagination. It is a lack of imagination to see a name before you and think, this apostle, this fellow-prisoner and kinsperson, must have been a man. It couldn’t have been otherwise, because I know there weren’t any women who were apostles. James Dunn says of this kind of thinking, “The assumption that it must be male is a striking indictment of male presumption regarding the character and structure of earliest Christianity.”[6] But, today, if you read an NIV, or pick up some other translations or Greek text-critical editions, you will still find Junias or an acknowledgment of “controversy” surrounding the translation. A lack of imagination leads not only to poor scholarship but it is poor theology, because it restricts our ability to envision a church different than the one we expect, and it restricts our ability to envision a God who has the breadth and capacity to call and send all persons: men, women, gender non-conforming folk, gay, straight, trans people, black, brown, white people, abled, and disabled people. When we fit God into our brain-sized boxes, visually, intellectually, and theologically, we close off the possibility to be changed by what we discover in scripture, by reason, from tradition, and through experience. But when our theological imagination is open to a bit of surprise, it is also open to grace, because grace is nothing if not surprising. There is the surprise that awaits even before we think to look: prevenient grace. The surprise that changes everything: justifying grace. The surprise that makes us get up and act: sanctifying grace.

So Junia’s name matters. Her work matters. Her status as someone called and sent by God matters. Her name, along with the more than two dozen people greeted in Romans 16, matter. And it is only a lack of theological imagination that thinks that they don’t, that it is only through the genius of a personality like Paul’s that the gospel bears fruit.

The people, not a personality, make change. There is a reason that the earliest Christ followers called themselves ekklēsiae, assemblies, what we translate as churches. They and Paul use the term for the assembly in ancient Athenian democracy, a political system in which free male citizens could vote, choose their leaders, deliberate, and determine their future as a city. So, too, these Christ-following assemblies deliberated about their identity and their future, chose their leaders, and pooled their resources. But citizenship in the Christ assembly was open to all, Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female, and its decisions did not always follow the epistolary demands of a singular, male leader (i.e. Paul).

Theological imagination requires a reorientation away from the heroization of Paul,[7] towards an interest in the people with and beside Paul, who write with him, carry his letters, who bring his voice to these communities, and who receive his letters and respond to him. This reorientation of course, is something feminist biblical scholars such as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Elizabeth Clark, Elizabeth Castelli (there are a lot of great Elizabeths!), and many, many others, have been calling attention to for decades. These women asking for a bit more wisdom in the way we read scripture, and asking for a bit more wisdom in our theological imagination.

Feminist and womanist biblical interpreters often find inspiration in the personification of wisdom we find in Proverbs 8, read responsively today. Wisdom, personified as a woman, speaks, in the passage immediately preceding what we read today:

“To you, O people, I call out;
    I raise my voice to all humankind..
Listen, for I have trustworthy things to say;
    I open my lips to speak what is right.
My mouth speaks what is true,
    for my lips detest wickedness.
All the words of my mouth are just;
    none of them is crooked or perverse.
To the discerning all of them are right;
    they are upright to those who have found knowledge.
10 Choose my instruction instead of silver,
    knowledge rather than choice gold,
11 for wisdom is more precious than rubies,
    and nothing you desire can compare with her.

In Proverbs 8, we also see wisdom present at the beginning, co-creating with God, in an exegesis of Genesis 1. Early Christians, especially the gospel writers, read Proverbs 8 and its account of divine wisdom, present at the beginning and co-creating with God, an exegesis of the creation account in Genesis, with theological imagination. They imagined and wrote about Jesus that way, whether at the beginning of John’s gospel, a midrash on Proverbs 8/Genesis 1, read a few weeks ago, or in the passage we read today from Luke 7. John the Baptist is a prophet and Jesus, well, Luke seems to play with the idea that Jesus is Wisdom herself in the flesh.

“Wisdom is vindicated by her children.” We are all wisdom’s children, and we do not and we cannot rely upon a single, heroic figure to guide or a demonic figure to blame for our speech or actions, or our silence and inaction. Our words and our actions reflect our wisdom or our folly, and we cannot escape the weighty mantle of responsibility that fact entails and the humility that fact requires. Jesus rebukes those who went to the Jordan looking for a personality in John—whether a frail reed or luxury clothes. Instead, Jesus, reorients us away from personality towards wisdom, towards the people. “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

I’d like to end with a brief quote and then a charge for you today. First the quote; which comes from another letter, written by Martin Luther King, Jr. I quote the Letter from a Birmingham Jail not as a heroization of King’s personality or unique genius, but because this letter, like Romans, is a letter written in community to community. Its wisdom is not in the personality of King, but in its rootedness in the importance of people beside King, of their action and inaction. I quote from this letter’s prescript to let King to situate himself as a saint in the much greater assembly of saints. I read from the letter’s opening, the height of rhetoric only happens after King situates himself within the community[8]

MY DEAR FELLOW CLERGYMEN:

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every Southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.

…We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

Remember, even at the heights of human rhetoric, we organize change not as a single personality, but as people.

And now, a charge: find some people. Do something. Go to a march, make a podcast, join a committee, please join a committee, volunteer for something, start something. Or, try writinga letter. When was the last time you wrote a physical letter to somebody? Not a tweet, facebook comment, or even an email, but a physical letter. Write a letter this week: A letter to a family member or friend you haven’t been able to find the right words for, a letter to that person you had to unfollow on Facebook because of all their political posts, a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, a letter to your elected official. It can be important, it can be mundane, it can be simple greetings or soaring rhetoric. You can be grumpy as Galatians, as pushy as Philemon, as poetic as Philippians, as tender as 1 Thessalonians, as caring and concerned as 1 &2 Corinthians, or as rambling as Romans, but write. Your choice, but if you choose to write, two requirements. 1. Value people over personality in the letter. Send greetings to people. Don’t expect the recipient to be able to solve everything or carry all the blame. Share why you care about what you care about. Acknowledge someone other than yourself. And 2. Sign your name to the letter. No anonymous comments on a news article or blog, no hiding behind a twitter handle. In a world with too much commenting and too much commentary, offer your real name. Because your name matters. The people to whom you write, the people with whom you correspond, matter. You matter. Your name matters.

Amen.

–The Rev. Jen Quigley, Chapel Associate for Vocational Discernment

[1] http://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/

[2] See Jo-Ann Gibson Robinson, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: the Memoir of Jo-Ann Gibson Robinson (Knoxville: The University of Tenessee Press, 1987).

[3] See Bernadette Brooten, “Junia…Outstanding among the Apostles (Rom 16:7)” in Women Priests: A Catholic Commentary on the Vatican Declaration, ed. L. and A. Swidler, (New York: Paulist Press, 1977).

[4] Eldon J. Epp, Junia: The First Woman Apostle. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2005) 23-24.

[5] See Epp on UBS 4 (1993), 45-46.

[6] Romans 9-16, WBC 38 (Dallas: Word, 1988), 894.

[7] See Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre and Laura S. Nasrallah, “Beyond the Heroic Paul: Toward a Feminist and Decolonizing Approach to the Letters of Paul.” In The Colonized Apostle: Paul through Postcolonial Eyes. Edited by Christopher Stanley. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 161-174.

[8] An annotated version can be found here: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/annotated-letter-birmingham-jail#fn1.

 

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Baptism: Political Theology

Sunday, January 8th, 2017

Click here to hear the full service

Isaiah 42: 1-9

Psalm 29

Acts 10: 34-43

Matthew 3: 13-17

Click here to hear the sermon only

Judgment:

Left. Right.

Up. Down.

Rise. Fall.

Scales of justice tip and tilt.

Judgment:

Righteousness. Sin.

Life. Punishment.

Kingdom. Fire.

Jesus judges sheep from goats.

Judgment:

Righteous. Unjust.

Merciful. Cruel.

Humble. Proud.

Jesus stores the wheat and burns the chaff.

Judgment:

Poor. Rich.

Faithful. Disobedient.

Honest. Hypocrite.

Jesus teaches the way through the narrow gate.

Baptism:

John. Jesus.

Water. Spirit.

Repentance. Forgiveness.

Jesus, with John, fills up all righteousness.

How shall power be distributed? How shall resources be allocated? These are the fundamental questions of politics. Today, having hoped for deliverance during Advent, having rejoiced at the incarnation on Christmas, and having marveled at the revelation on Epiphany, we now come face to face with the one we hoped for, the one we celebrated, the one at whom we marveled: Jesus, who has come to be our judge, and whose baptism by John fills up all righteousness. Like with so many gifts, we may find that Jesus is not quite what we were hoping for. Having unwrapped the package, our joy may not quite be complete. The curtain having been pulled back, our wonderment may be tinged with a bit of perplexity. You see, today, as Jesus descends into the Jordan and is baptized by John, the promise of the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus is not in some far off heavenly realm, but rather is immersed in the ebb and flow of the mundane. Jesus, it turns out, is deeply concerned with how power is distributed and with how resources are allocated. And moreover, Jesus is deeply concerned with how we, you and I, wield power, interact with power, respond to power; with how we, you and I, obtain wealth, spend wealth, share wealth. Jesus’ baptism is political theology.

Where is your treasure? You may want to ponder this question between now and Ash Wednesday, when Jesus will address the question directly: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Where is your treasure? Is it on earth, or is it in heaven? And how, pray tell, should you know?

For Matthew, the scales of divine justice, the scales upon which righteousness is measured and judgment meted out, are quite similar to the banker’s scales upon which your payment is determined sufficient to cancel your debt or you are bankrupt. In Matthew’s construal, we each have two bank accounts, one in heaven, and one on earth; one spiritual, and one material; and wealth is interchangeable between the two. In fact, there is an inverse correlation between the amount of treasure in one and the amount of treasure in the other: our treasure in the heavenly account increases as we give our material wealth to the poor; our treasure in the earthly account increases by greed, injustice, and hypocrisy, which put our spiritual balance in the red. What is our spiritual treasure? What is spiritual wealth? Righteousness. Righteousness. Righteousness. And so, we are back in the Jordan with John who baptizes Jesus to fulfill all righteousness.

It is easy to overlook the importance of Jesus’ baptism by John fulfilling all righteousness given the extraordinary way the scene ends: “suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Who cares about the fulfillment of all righteousness when the heavens are rent, the Spirit of God descends, and God speaks in the words of the prophet Isaiah? Surely it is this revelation of Jesus’ divinity and of the trinity that is the point of Jesus’ baptism? No! The opening of the heavens, the descent of the Spirit, and the voice of God are not the point but rather the divine response to the fulfillment of all righteousness, or better, the filling up of all righteousness. After all, the whole point of the incarnation, life, ministry, teaching, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus is salvation, and salvation is accomplished by filling spiritual bank accounts with righteousness. In Jesus, the infinite righteousness of God flows into the world to fill up the spiritual bank accounts of those who take up their crosses and follow Jesus, that is, of those who are righteous. Jesus pays off the spiritual debts, that is, gives himself as a ransom, for his righteous disciples. And so:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Here, then, is the economy of salvation: take up your cross, follow Jesus, and store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. Note: there is no room here for empty words: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Note: salvation is not about belief: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” The economy of salvation is to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. Righteousness is done, not thought, not said, not believed. Justice is done, not thought, not said, not believed. Mercy is done, not thought, not said, not believed. Humility is done, not thought, not said, not believed. Belief is worthless. Speech is worthless. Righteousness alone is heavenly treasure, and righteousness requires you to act.

There is an inverse relationship between the amount of treasure in the spiritual bank account and the amount of treasure in the material bank account. Righteous action is costly. The grace of Jesus filling the spiritual accounts of the righteous is costly, for Jesus and for us. Teaching righteousness, preaching righteousness, doing righteousness, filling all righteousness got Jesus killed, and many of his followers down through the ages as well. Doing righteousness, doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God, are costly to us as well. After all, the correlate of taking up your cross is laying down your life.

No one knows more about costly grace, the cost of righteousness, the cost of justice, than Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose hymn, “By Gracious Powers,” we will sing following the sermon. An outspoken critic and opponent of Hitler and the Nazi regime from the very beginning of its rise to power, Bonhoeffer left Germany for the United States and Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1939 rather than face the prospect of being conscripted into Hitler’s army and refusing to serve, a capital offense. Regret at the decision to leave Germany nagging at him, he returned to suffer through the dark days of the Nazi regime with his fellow Germans and the Confessing Church, which he had helped found. A lifelong pacifist, as a participant in the German resistance Bonhoeffer nevertheless contributed to a plot to kill Hitler, having concluded that “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” As he said in what was to have been his magnum opus, his Ethics, “when a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it… Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.” Having been arrested on April 5, 1943, his connection to the conspiracy to kill Hitler was not discovered until a year and half later when the plot had already failed, and he was executed by hanging at dawn with several co-conspirators on April 9, 1945, only two weeks before U.S. soldiers would liberate the camp.

Grace is indeed costly. Righteousness is indeed costly. For God, and for us. Jesus filling up all righteousness is the very meaning of grace, and that grace is both a precious resource and a great power. Grace is not a divine exception from the unjust use of earthly power and the unequal distribution of earthly resources. Grace is the call to use earthly power justly and to distribute earthly resources fairly.

The cost of grace, the cost of righteousness, the cost of justice, the cost of mercy, the cost of humility is steep, and so it should be little surprise that there is a plethora of cheap grace flooding the salvation market. This knockoff grace, peddled in various formulations throughout history, arises in its most visible, pervasive, and pernicious form today as so-called “Prosperity Gospel.” Its roots to be found in the New Thought movement of the late 19th century, prosperity teachings reached prominence in the healing revivals of the mid-20th century and then in the later 20th century in the Word of Faith movement and televangelism. The central teachings of the prosperity gospel are that it is God’s will that we be healthy and wealthy, that if we are not it is because we lack faith, we lack positive thought processes, and we need to contribute financially to the appropriate religious institutions. Salvation, in this view, is not righteousness but the breaking of the bonds of sickness and poverty. You too may achieve prosperity in abundance, if you believe hard enough, think yourself strong enough, and give the preacher enough money.

This is the cheapest of grace, or as Bonhoeffer described it, “grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; grace as the church’s inexhaustible pantry, from which it is doled out by careless hands without hesitation or limit.” Note that in the gospel of prosperity the relationship between the heavenly bank account and the material bank account is not inversely proportional but directly proportional; that is, increasing the amount in your heavenly account also increases the amount in your material account and vice versa. The road to salvation requires not that you take up your cross but that you take up your money, and if you do not have any money, just believe hard enough and you will. Reinhold Niebuhr rightly called out an early version of prosperity gospel, preached by Norman Vincent Peale, as false gospel: “The basic sin of this cult is its egocentricity; it puts ‘self’ instead of the cross at the center of the picture.” Or, as Bonhoeffer rightly summed up, “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.” Prosperity gospel is heresy, it is blasphemy, it is treason in the kingdom of God, and worst of all, it is wrong.

Of course, heresy, blasphemy, treason in the kingdom, and flat out being wrong are hardly barriers to political success, to attaining earthly wealth and power. In our own day, the gospel of prosperity has amassed vast wealth by preying on those in financial and personal distress with promises of health and wealth to those who give their last penny. In our own day, the gospel of prosperity has attained a level of power and influence such that it will be front and center, leading us in prayer, in the presidential inauguration in a couple of weeks.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was called to stand with Jesus in the Jordan in the dark days of Nazi Germany, to commit himself once again to righteousness by being baptized by John for repentance, to pay the earthly cost of grace in order to store up righteous treasure in heaven. Jesus’ baptism is political theology. Bonhoeffer’s baptism is a living out, a doing, of the political theology of Jesus’ baptism by John, of righteousness, of justice, of mercy, of humility. In the days to come, will you stand with Jesus in the Jordan? Will you pay the cost of discipleship? Will you receive the filling up of all righteousness Jesus offers by doing righteousness? Will you cash out your material bank account in order to store your treasure in heaven?

Thus says John the baptizer: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John’s baptism with water for repentance is cheap compared to the cost to be paid for Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire is what we face at the seat of judgment, and Jesus is the judge. Judgment is a determination of justice. Jesus will determine our justice, our righteousness.

Judgment:

Left. Right.

Up. Down.

Rise. Fall.

Scales of justice tip and tilt.

Judgment:

Righteousness. Sin.

Life. Punishment.

Kingdom. Fire.

Jesus judges sheep from goats.

Judgment:

Righteous. Unjust.

Merciful. Cruel.

Humble. Proud.

Jesus stores the wheat and burns the chaff.

Judgment:

Poor. Rich.

Faithful. Disobedient.

Honest. Hypocrite.

Jesus teaches the way through the narrow gate.

Baptism:

John. Jesus.

Water. Spirit.

Repentance. Forgiveness.

Jesus, with John, fills up all righteousness.

Do justice; love mercy; walk humbly with your God.

Amen.

-Brother Lawrence A. Whitney, LC†

Resolution

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 2: 1-12

Click here to hear the sermon only

Thirty years ago, I was given a precious gift.  The gift was given following a pastoral visit, in which a woman mentioned that she had written a journal entry about her first time in worship, in our church.  With some trepidation, not knowing what it might hold, I tentatively asked if she would sometime give me a copy, which sometime later she did.  She gave me the copy about nine months later, on the day she joined the church.  In a moment, I am going to read you the journal entry.  I have permission to do so, and have done so in other (mostly teaching) settings.  The author died two years ago, after many years of faithful service and membership in that church.  She was an individual, a real person, very different, somewhat zany, a hoot.  She led for decades the church’s bell choir, named ‘Hell’s Bells’.  I bring her journal entry because, for her, finding a place and way to worship, a church family to love, and church home to enjoy, was simple salvation, connection, empowerment, meaning, belonging, the alphabet of grace and the winning experience of love.  Have you found a church family to love and church home to enjoy?  Have you found a burning fire, a hearth before which to warm, to wonder, to pray, to pause, to listen, to learn?

This week with one son and one son-in-law, I sat before a beautiful hearth, and a roaring fire.  Let me add that both son and son-in-law are solid citizens, if I may, the former, a hiker and camper, an attorney and church lay leader, the latter a PhD from Princeton, a senior minister and an Eagle Scout.  They know about fires, starting and feeding and tending them, is what I mean.  Yet, in that evening, one asked, ‘Is this fire real, or is it gas fed?’  Because the fire was so well built, 2 logs by 2 logs by 2, and because it burned so cleanly in the venerable, hearth—a kind of perfected beauty—it did resemble what has become, sadly, the norm in public hearths, gas not wood.  So, the question, I am emphasizing, was not out of place.  But the fire was real.  I had been there earlier to see it built and lit and fed.  I have age, more winters on the back, more time around fires.  And, I love a beautiful hearth and roaring flame in it.  The fire was for real.  Yet, the next morning, the other asked, ‘is it really for real?’  Come and see, was all I could say.

Come and see is all I say today, for this New Year’s sermon.  That fire you admire, that worship service burning and blazing, which you hear over the radio, or on the internet, or which you admire from afar, or of which someone has told you—it is for real.  It is.  Come and stand closer.  You will feel it.  Your life needs, demands, requires, and will open up in warmth before such a sturdy fireplace.  Come and see.  Kings to the brightness of his rising did come, long ago.  To worship.  Worship.  Somewhere.  It need not be here.  But somewhere.

Have you no 2017 resolution?  Here is one:  go to church.  Why?  For the mystery of the burning fire.  For its beauty and warmth.  For its darkness lit by the licking flames.  For its allure, its millennia old draw, its gathered people.  For the different women and men whom you will find—a group not a part of your extended family, not a part of your familiar neighborhood, not a part of your workplace, not a part of your cyber network.  A woman, hymnal in one hand and baby in the other, rocking in the fourth pew, here, on Christmas Eve, singing the Carols.  A man, alone in the balcony, wrestling off the dark difficulties of life.  A colorful family with squirming children.  A widow, grieving, whose grief is unlike any other, as every grief is unlike any other.  A preacher trying for both honesty and kindness, both truth and love.  A choir giving it their all, all the time.  A table set, as today, with remembrance, thanksgiving, and presence; with faith and hope and love.  You don’t believe?  Worship until you believe it, then worship because you believe it. (John Wesley’s admonishment to preachers). It will come, over time, believe me.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.  And guess what?  If this is your resolution, you have already started to live it!  Here you are, today, listening by the internet or radio, or seated in the pew, or wandering the back rooms, narthex, hallways and byways of the chapel.  Have you no 2017 resolution?  Here is one:  go to church.   Thirty years ago, one did so…

(The preached sermon at this point concluded with the journal recollection of a first time visit to a church, by a woman who later joined that church:  the detailed journal piece remembered what it feels like to be new, in a new place, unknown to others (regulars in any church need steady reminder of this) and remembered the sheer joy one finds when finally, in person, one discovers a church family to love and church home to enjoy (those listening and participating only by radio\internet need steady invitation to this)).

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