Archive for February, 2017

Christian Particularity and Engaging a Pluralistic World

Sunday, February 26th, 2017

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Exodus 24:12-18

2 Peter 1:16-21

Psalm 99

Matthew 17: 1-9

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Good morning. It is a wonder and a joy to be part of this community, and I am especially grateful to Dean Hill for the invitation to join you in the pulpit today.

As your bulletin notes, today is the last Sunday after Epiphany – Transfiguration Sunday. It is that time in the Christian year when we recognize the real presence of God incarnate in Jesus. This theological claim grounds our preparation in Lent (which begins on Wednesday) for the celebration of the miracle of Easter and resurrection. My sermon title plays on the claim that is made in Matthew’s description of Jesus on the mountain. Particularity, this theological concept that God’s incarnation happened through Jesus as a particular person at a particular time and place – about two millennia ago in the region near the Sea of Galilee, is front and center in our gospel today.

Christian particularity, what makes us unique and distinct as a religious body, is grounded in this idea that Jesus is God. Within religious communities we often do a pretty good job of telling our own folk why we are unique and special, what makes us different from everybody else, but that does not always lend itself to thoughtfully engaging folks outside of the community.

Thankfully for the preacher, this is a well-trod topic. (Although for the PhD candidate in me, I wonder how I am ever supposed to contribute to a two-millennia-old conversation.) Twenty years ago, Mary Elizabeth Moore, wrote an article for the British Journal of Religious Education titled, “Teaching Christian particularity in a pluralistic world.” In the article she writes, “Christianity itself lives in the tension between formation and freedom, particularity and pluralism, and that tension is represented in Jesus Christ himself. Although Christians vary greatly in what they believe about Jesus and his teaching, a common heritage of Christians is an affirmation of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. This heritage has sometimes been used as a wedge to divide Christians from people of other faiths, drawing upon such biblical texts as ‘No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14:6b, NRSV) … this very heritage can instead be the source of basic impulses to embrace the pluralistic world, and … the heritage can be discovered most fully when we practise education by conversation – seeking to know ourselves and others by engaging with the diverse traditions of Christianity and with the diverse traditions of other religious communities” (BJRE 17:2, pp. 71-72).

After all, isn’t the collegiate experience all about education by conversation? We come to know the other through conversation with the other and also grow to more fully understand ourselves.

I was sitting in the College of General Studies building lobby on Friday afternoon – 70 degrees, sunny, and gorgeous outside. Classes were letting out a little after 2pm, and nearly everyone was headed for a place outside. A young woman sat down at a table near me in the lobby, jean jacket, stylish shades, and venti Very Berry Hibiscus Starbucks refresher in hand. She looked the part of a person ready to enjoy a beautiful early spring day. However, she busied herself on her phone, waiting for something or someone. A few minutes later a young man also looks for a place to sit. He recognizes the young woman, she looks up from her phone, and he walks to her table. “We’re in class together?” He stammers the question. She smiles warmly, “Yeah.” A hand extended, a name offered, he introduces himself. They begin to chat. Eventually she invites him to sit. “Are you rushing? Everybody in class seems to be rushing.” “Um, no,” he replies, clearly hoping that was the right answer. “I didn’t know that was such a big thing here.” “I’m not rushing either,” she says. A sigh of relief. He concedes, “I’m just not into that.” Conversation continues. Eventually she shares that several women in her family went to BU and that it was always part of her awareness applying to schools. She speaks passionately about the institution’s history and commitment to social justice and accessibility for the common working person in Boston. An aunt got a degree while working full-time. She continues that she only applied to schools in New England. He applied to 15 schools across the country, BU and BC – got into both. “Oh, I didn’t apply to BC,” she says. He stops again. Perhaps, he said the wrong thing. But she continues and talks about the character of an institution. She didn’t have anything against BC, BU just represented the kind of institution she wanted to be a part of, a place which values diversity, a place where you can find a place to belong, and a place where anyone can improve their future. “That’s why I’m here.” They continue to chat.

I think to myself, “Wow, she’d make a great campus tour guide.” Their conversation continues, he learns more about BU, and she is at least entertained by his curiosity. Eventually he says, “I don’t think I have your number. We should hang out.” “I’d like that,” she responds as she types some digits in his phone.

Conversation is a constant part of college life. You meet new people. You learn new things; you learn about yourself, and sometimes you make a friend.

When we engage with the unfamiliar or the uncomfortable we learn a little bit more about ourselves. That’s why I left all of the lectionary readings in the liturgy this week. For some, one text or another is uncomfortable, awkward, or jarring. Psalm 99 has an abundance of masculine lordship language, itself at odds with the feminist commitments espoused by many members of the staff and regular folks in the pews, but it is interlaced with profound truths fundamental to the commitments of this community: “lover of justice, you have established equity” and “you were a forgiving God to them.” But that line is immediately followed with “[you are] an avenger of their wrongdoings.” What? Do we worship a God of wrath and judgement? (Plenty of Christians do.) What do we believe and why do we believe it? How do today’s readings trouble your notions of the divine? Is God a devouring fire? Is the Holy Spirit spoken by God? The images from the lessons today all ground the language and ingrained imagery of our tradition. We may find some useful, others not, but they are part of the tradition. Together the texts contribute to our collective Christian particularity and inform your own theological particularity.

Like many Methodists, I learned my theology through song. The sermon hymn today, which Justin Blackwell, our organist and Associate Director of Music, tells me is the most popular of the four or so Transfiguration hymns in the United Methodist Hymnal, frames the uniqueness of Jesus and Jesus’ relationship with God. It also provides a glimpse of what the Western Church has taught about the transfiguration for centuries:

From age to age the tale declares

how with the three disciples there

where Moses and Elijah meet,

the Lord holds converse high and sweet.

The law and prophets there have place,

two chosen witnesses of grace.

These lines from the Sarum Breviary, the variant of the Roman rite commonly used in the Diocese of Salisbury in England from the 11th to 16th centuries, allude to the principle teaching of the early church that this encounter among Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, signals that the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospels ought to be received and read in conversation with one another.

John Mason Neale, the 19th century Anglican priest and hymnwriter best known for his carol “Good King Wenceslas,” translated the disused Use of Salisbury and a number of other Latin, Greek, Russian, and Syrian liturgical texts into English. Much of the ancient liturgy we now sing in English is thanks to Rev. Neale. His translation continues:

With shining face and bright array,

Christ deigns to manifest that day

what glory shall be theirs above

who joy in God with perfect love.

These Sarum lines connect our future Heavenly glory-bodies of which Paul writes in Corinthians with Jesus’ appearance on the mountain. It is in his appearance we see the promise of resurrection.

The last line of the gospel pericope also more clearly reinforces the resurrection connection: “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” That line is also a truth claim in our Gospel today.

How do we navigate these Christian truth claims in a pluralistic world? Perhaps we scrutinize them in our encounter with the other. In conversation, we bring reason, tradition, and experience to bear on scripture, and we come to own what is good, real, and true in our texts.

Marsh Chapel is a lectionary-based liturgical experience. Week by week, we read through a three-year cycle of scriptural texts. However, the preacher may elect (and the dean often does) to include only a portion of the texts appointed for the day. Usually the lectionary includes a Hebrew Bible lesson, a selection from a New Testament epistle (or Acts), a Psalm (or portion of one), and a Gospel lesson. To explicate four, at best, loosely related, texts in about 20 minutes is a practical challenge. Often the dean’s 22.5 minutes is not even enough time to fully engage with one text let alone four. Your preacher today decided it better to invite you into conversation with each text – although truth be told, today’s lectionary lists two Psalms – Psalm 99 is the alternate text, the less common one – even if a full treatment of each text may escape his ability today.

By engaging with the diverse texts and traditions of Christianity and with the diverse traditions of other religious communities we come to know ourselves.

In 2 Peter 1:21, “First of all you must understand this, that no prophesy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophesy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God,” we are reminded of the campaign of our United Church of Christ friends, “God is still speaking.” Are we listening for the movement of the Spirit and recognizing God’s continuing movement in the world?

This chapel was constructed with the expectation that God was still speaking. A regular worshipper or listener knows the saints whose images adorn the clerestory windows of this sacred space: Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, John the Evangelist, Athanasius, Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Francis Asbury, Abraham Lincoln, and Frances Willard. Yes, Daniel Marsh even believed that God was speaking through a woman! It would take his denomination (my own) almost another two decades to get on board that women could and should have equal place with men in the church. But Frances Willard, like so many heroes is a complicated person, temperance leader, suffragette, and in Marsh’s day, the only woman to have a statue in the Capitol rotunda. However, she also tacitly encouraged racism and bigotry in the temperance and suffrage pamphlets and fliers her organizations produced. At a time when other leaders, women and men, worked for greater racial inclusion, she did very little to further that cause. She prophesied a land of inclusion and equality for women (but was that vision only for white women?). Part of her message was on point, part of it not. How does the reality her life and work square with our verse from 2 Peter today? Our conversation partners help us make sense of our scripture and the tradition we inherit.

Perhaps our particularity, our personal Christian theological particularity, changes over time, educated by conversation.

When I teach United Methodist polity, that is the organization, structure, and law of the denomination (contained in the Book of Discipline), I encounter a number of cradle United Methodist students preparing for a lifetime of (usually) itinerant service to the denomination. Many have been swaddled in the rhythms of church life and denominational jargon, but they often refer to themselves as “Methodist,” not “United Methodist.” When asked, “Why Methodist? Why not United Methodist?” The usual answer goes something like this, “Oh, it sounds so formal. It refers to the official body of the denomination. ‘Methodist’ is more generic, more general, more personal.” I often then ask if they have an affinity for John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement. Responses are often mixed. “Well, how about Phillip William Otterbein.” “Phillip who?” The name does not usually register unless they are from Ohio or Pennsylvania (or they have taken a United Methodist history class). Phillip William Otterbein, founder of the United Brethren in Christ, lifelong friend of Francis Asbury, the early American Methodist bishop. Otterbein, the German-speaking, university-educated immigrant minister who together with Martin Boehm, a German-speaking farmer-turned-minister, organized religious communities for the German immigrants of Pennsylvania and Ohio in the early 19th century. The same Otterbein, who with Boehm and Asbury, appears in the list of bishops of the United Methodist Church. When the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968, the lists of episcopal leaders merged, and Otterbein and Boehm found a place alongside Asbury, Thomas Coke, Richard Whatcoat, and Jacob Albright as founding episcopal leaders of our denomination. The tiny communities which dot the farmlands of Pennsylvania and Ohio still often have two United Methodist Churches, one historically Methodist Episcopal and one EUB. There are plenty of United Methodists who aren’t Wesleyans, in fact they don’t see themselves as Methodists. They are United Methodists, the product of a merged church, a big tent, where competing theological views are welcome, and where for almost 50 years we have agreed to disagree on many things. I share with students that I describe myself as “United Methodist” because I believe in a big tent church. Yes, I am personally “Methodist” in theology and practice but I have come to value and learn from the conversation partners I find within my own denomination – especially the non-Wesleyan ones.

A good conversation partner is someone with whom you can be honest about your particularity, whether that’s BU, BC, United Methodist, Lutheran, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.

Last week, I had the responsibility of communicating the morning announcements. I began in the usual fashion, “Good morning and welcome to Marsh Chapel. Whether you join us here in the nave at 735 Commonwealth Avenue by radio airwaves @ 90.9 WBUR or via the podcast, we are glad you are with us for a moment of pause, rest, and worship.” As I continued, I simply made that welcome a bit more specific: “As we strive to be a service in the service of the city – Boston – and a heart in the heart of the city, know that you are welcome here – immigrant, refugee, or 8th generation New Englander, black, brown, white, gay, straight, bi, trans, something else, or simply not sure. You are welcome here. Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green Party, Independent, you are welcome here.”

Anyone who listens regularly to the Sunday morning service knows that the Dean has worked over these last several years to cultivate a culture of genuine welcome and hospitality in the Marsh Chapel community. We are a multigenerational, multiethnic, politically and theologically diverse worshipping community, but sometimes we are not always explicit that “a welcome to all” means “all.”

We hope that you find the chapel to be a place where you can be honest about your particularity, find a receptive conversation partner, learn about their particularity, and also reflect on your own. Coffee hour after the service is an excellent opportunity for education by conversation – so is Monday night dinner, Create Space on Tuesdays, Wednesday School of Theology worship here in the nave, and Common Ground Communion on Thursdays out on Marsh Plaza. Find a good conversation partner here at Marsh Chapel, in one of your classes, at the AA meeting, in your candlepin league, or at your yoga class.

How are we to engage a pluralistic world?

Be honest about your own particularity and get an education by conversation about yourself and about the other.

Amen.

-the Reverend Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership Development

Resistance

Sunday, February 19th, 2017

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Matthew 5: 38-48

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Preface

         We pause for a moment this morning to listen to the Gospel of Matthew 5:39, and this morning’s three-point sermon upon it. (Either a three-point sermon, or three points in search of a sermon!) While there are easier sentences which might tempt us here in this reading, we shall listen to the hardest for interpreters, ‘Do not resist one who is evil’.

As today’s reading reminds us, we are from a deep, though intricately varied, ethical tradition that enshrines selfless love, Christo-centric love, cruciform love as the cherished ideal of human behavior. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies’.

We reflect this morning first on the personal dimension, second on the social dimension, and third on the contemporary dimension of our verse.

One: Personal Ethics

         Do not resist one who is evil. If anyone smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. Coat, cloak. One mile, two. If you love those who love you, what reward have you?

At the outset with these verses we shall stay with the heavy emphasis they clearly have on personal relationships, where the ice is thicker and we are safer. For an individual, alone and with no responsibilities to others, there are often options for self-less self-sacrifice.   Our own striking remembrances of times when we have seen this verse practiced restore us. Some examples:

A new Bishop came to us just after our first year in college. He loved golf, and would happily take a summer afternoon to play with some of his preachers, and sometimes their sons. This was a different era, before the entrance, in numbers, of women into the ministry, and before the more pronounced current separation of those superintending from those superintended. The general and district superintendents, it was more steadily them remembered, were simply ministers, fellow elders, assigned to different sorts of work. The color purple was not often in evidence. As one of the chief influences of our entrance into pastoral work, it is a supreme happiness to remember his kindness, his humility, and his example. I see him carefully washing hands, and then offering a prayer with 12 year olds at summer camp. There in memory he is carrying hymnals downstairs after he spoken on the district. We served him spaghetti in a modest New York apartment, and he was easy and at home.

One August he and three others were playing golf on a public course, in the heat. After the round all stopped for a soda in the club house—another era, well before Methodist clergy could drink a beer. At least in front of each other (and with the Bishop). Another group asked if they had seen a putter one had left behind. My friend Gordon Knapp remembers: we enjoyed a cold drink after a round, a foursome at a nearby table muttered and groused about Joe and me not picking up one of their clubs that lay near a green. I was getting hot. Not Joe. He got up and walked to the far side of the course to see if the club was still there. Not finding it, he returned without saying a word to our mouthy detractors. I have always looked upon this incident as a marvelous lesson in practical Christianity.

         Perhaps you too had a grandmother who baked cherry pies on February 22. The cherry tree myth is the most well-known and longest enduring legend about our first president, George Washington, whose birthday we honor this week. We have remembered James Baldwin and Frederik Douglass, and have sung with Charles Tindlay this month. We also have recalled Lincoln and Washington. “In the original story, when Washington was six years old he received a hatchet as a gift and damaged his father’s cherry tree. When his father discovered what he had done, he became angry and confronted him. Young George bravely said, “I cannot tell a lie…I did cut it with my hatchet.” Washington’s father embraced him and rejoiced that his son’s honesty was worth more than a thousand trees.”

         In one suburban neighborhood a young family worked hard and were disappointed by the results of the autumn elections. Their windows and lawn were adorned with campaign material. You knew where they stood. When the snow came, an older neighbor one block away, who had a new snow blower, and some extra time, plowed out his neighbors’ sidewalks and driveways. By accident, at a holiday party, the young family learned that their kind plowman had voted for and staunchly supported the opposing party. The snow removal is still going on.

         But we need to be careful here, even here where the ice is pretty thick. The words here are plural in command (you plural must not resist) and singular in object (one who is or does evil). The teaching applies to individual behavior, though it is given to all. What you may be free to do or not to do, on your own, is not a freedom available to groups, institutions and societies. Niebuhr teaches us: An individual may sacrifice his own interests, either without hope of reward or in the hope of an ultimate compensation. But how is an individual, who is responsible for the interests of a group, to justify the sacrifice of interests other than his own…No one has a right to be unselfish with other people’s interests…Fewer risks can be taken with community interests than with individual interests…To some degree the conflict between the purest individual morality and an adequate political policy must therefore remain (Moral Man and Immoral Society, 269-273).

Two: Social Ethics

         The harder question, and the spot on the pond where the ice gets thin, or at least thinner, is ‘how far the principle can be applied to groups, and especially political life’ (IB loc cit). Our recognition that the dominant alto\tenor voices of the early church and evangelist, expecting the very soon return of Christ, and hence shading this ethic as an interim ethic (we this winter rely on Albert Schweitzer and Amos Wilder here), may help us. Here is a ringing question placed against the ethic of retaliation that dates to Hammurabi, to Roman Law, to Aeschylus, and is epitomized in the lex talionis, eye and tooth. Resist not., says 5: 39.

Especially, how shall we hear this verse in relation to the brief span of human history given to our keeping? While there are easier applications, we shall today head straight into the hardest, the Christian ethical teaching on the place of military might. It needs no particular emphasis, today, to recognize that behind the furry and flurry of daily news—cable news that should have less viewership, major newspapers that need more calm and balance, millennials and baby boomers both who need fewer protests and more projects–there looms the prospect, ever present across the globe, of armed conflict. Matthew 5:39 says ‘resist not’. So how shall hear this verse?

Over 20 centuries, and speaking with unforgivable conciseness as one must in a twenty-minute sermon, two basic understandings of war and peace have emerged in Christian thought. As you know, these roughly can be called the so-called pacifist and just war understandings.

Pacifism preceded its sibling, and infinitely extends to all times the interim ethic of the Sermon on the Mount (which even here in Matthew, a late writing, expects that the coming of Christ will soon make moot our ethical dilemmas, and so tends to err on the side of quietism, or, in the case of arms, pacifism): “to him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also”. Many utterly saintly Christian women and men have and do honor this understanding with their selfless commitment, including many in this congregation today. My own pulpit hero, Ernest Fremont Tittle, the best Methodist preacher of the 20th century, did so from his Chicago pulpit through the whole Second World War. My namesake Allan Knight Chalmers did so in pulpit and classroom near the same time, here in Boston. Think about that for a minute. While personally I have not been able, to this date anyway, to agree with them, I never compose a sermon on this topic without wondering, and to some degree fearing, what their judgment might be.

The multiple theories of just war, or war as the least of all evil alternatives, have developed since the Fourth Century and the writing of St. Augustine. Here the command to “be merciful, even as God is merciful” is understood tragically to include times when mercy for the lamb means armed opposition to the wolf. The New Testament apocalyptic frame and its interim ethic are honored, to be sure, but supplemented with the historic experience of the church through the ages. Many utterly saintly Christian men and women have honored this understanding with their selfless commitment, including some present here today, and some who are not present because they gave their lives that others might live.   Just war thought includes several serious caveats. We together need to know and recall these, in five forms: a just cause in response to serious evil, a just intention for restoration of peace with justice, an absence of self-enrichment or desire for devastation, a use as an utterly last resort, a claim of legitimate authority, and a reasonable hope of success, given the constraints of “discrimination” and “proportionality” (usually understood as protection of non-combatants). Response. Restoration. Restraint. Last resort. Common authority.

Prayerfully, we each and we all will want to consider our own understanding, our own ethic, our own choice and choices between these two basic alternatives. But the careful listener this February of 2017 will want a thought or two about how, together, as those who influence culture together, we might positively and proactively live out Matthew 5:39. Our age and world are embedded with nuclear weaponry, which with luck thus far, since 1945, has not been used. But, as one wrote last week, ‘luck is not a plan and luck tends to run out’. We are keenly aware, as well, that in a nuclear age, the temperament, judgment, and character of those in positions of dispositive power, are crucial. We are aware, as well, of the influence for good and ill that leadership carries, including the power to shred inherited, longstanding forms of etiquette, diplomacy, and culture, on a daily basis. We are well to remember that the wise primary impetus for globalization is not economics but security.

Three: Resisting Resentment

         So far, in this sermon, we have offered, first, a qualified application of our verse to personal ethics and, second, a qualified separation of the verse from literal use in social ethics.   Third, what does the verse call for, through us, today?

We will pause now to welcome a visitor to our service. Welcome. You will find him to my right, and down the west aisle of the chapel. He is standing alone, and has been with us before. Actually, his worship attendance at Marsh Chapel has been perfect for 60 years, a far better record than he had in life. For he is enshrined in one of our Connick stained glass windows, one of the many novel choices the fourth President of Boston University, Daniel Marsh, made in designing our chapel. Abraham Lincoln may be able to offer us some assistance today, on President’s weekend.

In the fall of 1858, two men as different as life and death stood beside each other on debate platforms in Illinois. To the right was the carefully groomed, smooth speaking, dapperly dressed Senator Stephen Douglas. To his left, looking like a bumpkin, stood a gangly, homely man, overly tall and saddled with a high pitched, irritating voice. They debated for the heart of the country, and Lincoln lost. In his career he lost and lost and lost. In 1858 he lost, even though virtually every point he made in his speeches proved true. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Accustomed to trample on the rights of others you have lost the genius of your own independence. Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves. True, true, true. He won in 1860, but in 1862 his party was thrashed (he said, ‘I am too big to cry and too badly hurt to laugh’), in 1863 the horror of Gettysburg quickened his finest address, in 1864, challenged by his own subordinate, he barely won, and in 1865, on Good Friday, he too was dead. Lincoln spoke of his country in the soaring phrase, ‘the last, best hope’. Lincoln exemplified a life-long resistance to resentment. He got up and tried again, time after time. He did not let the inevitable resentments of life stymie him.

Lincoln resisted resentment. Sometimes it is better to have patience than brains. If we can restrain ourselves, in the future, from making scapegoats of some in order furiously to retaliate against other hidden foes, that is, we shall find that the community of peoples will see in us a last best hope. We may model, as a people, a path forward into a time of freedom, pluralism, toleration, compromise, and peace. Here Lincoln holds a key for us, a dream and hope of ‘malice toward none’.

We may be entering an Epoch of Spiritual Discipline Against Resentment. Here I simply refer to a great American and a greater historian, Christopher Lasch, and his rumination on the work of Reinhold Niebuhr:

The only way to break the ‘endless cycle’ of injustice, Niebuhr argued, was nonviolent coercion, with its spiritual discipline against resentment. In order to undermine an oppressor’s claims to moral superiority, (one) has to avoid such claims on their own behalf.

         Again, in the confines of a sermon, I can only sketch. Lasch’s essay distilled this theme, a spiritual discipline against resentment, from the lives and writings of Niebuhr, but also from Martin Luther King, the Boston Personalists, and many others.   He saw, as we too may see in the Matthean passage earlier read, the necessity of holding at bay those deeply human sentiments that easily, and tragically, attach themselves to us when we are fearful, attacked, and violated. For a future to emerge that is more than simply a repetition of the patterns of the past, a people must develop a ‘spiritual discipline against resentment’.

What is this discipline? What does it look like? How is one to find its power? Truly I see no other source than a confessional reliance on the Christ of Calvary, and no better reading than the one we heard a moment ago. Frederik Douglass: “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”

         A Spiritual Discipline against Resentment. It is quotidian, tedious work, and will take up the next decade. It was the genius of Isaiah Berlin, with whom we conclude, which best bespoke this wise admonition to a discipline against resentment:

Collisions, even if they cannot be avoided, can be softened. Claims can be balanced, compromises can be reached: in concrete situations not every claim is of equal force—so much liberty, so much equality; so much for sharp moral condemnation, so much for understanding a given human situation; so much for the full force of law, and so much for the prerogative of mercy; for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless. Priorities, never final and absolute, must be established.

Of course social or political collisions will take place; the mere conflict of positive values alone makes this unavoidable. Yet they can be minimized by promoting and preserving an uneasy equilibrium, which is constantly threatened and in constant need of repair—that alone is the precondition for decent societies and morally acceptable behavior, otherwise we are bound to lose our way. A little dull as a solution you will say? Yet there is some truth in this view.

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

The Bach Experience

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

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Matthew 5: 21-37

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Hill 

A.1. ‘This third cantata of Marsh Chapel’s Bach Experience continues the overarching theme of arrivals that permeate the four cantatas this season: in the fall, we celebrated the birthday of John the Baptist and the Ascension of Mary; in April, we will celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. This morning features Bach’s Cantata, composed for the Feast of the Purification and first performed on 2 February 1725. The Purification commemorates Mary’s return to the Temple forty days after giving birth to Jesus in accordance with Mosaic law; the sense of Jesus’ arrival is crystallized, however, by the words of Simeon, whose prophecy of death soon after meeting the Messiah has remained one of the most enduring poetic and musical texts in all of Christianity. Those words, also known by the Latin Nunc dimittis, are set here by Bach in a combination of Martin Luther’s chorale translation and an anonymous libretto’s extrapolation of the corresponding chorale verses’ themes, a technique we have seen in the other chorale cantatas’ (from today’s notes).

A.2. For a moment, let us hear Matthew in concert with all the gospels.  They are each very different, but in the acclamation of resurrection and cross, they partly converge.  So the grace and power of Bach this morning, are amply justified:  ’(The Gospel writer) himself had a vision overwhelming enough to eliminate the painful and humiliating aspects of Jesus’ passion and to replace them with signs of exaltation and glory, so as to compress the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday into a single momentous happening, the defeat of the prince of this world and the victory of Christ’ 193 (Ashton).  Recall  Matthew, and his community of faith:

A.3.Conscious as they were of the continuing presence in their midst of the Glorified One, no wonder the community, or rather the evangelist who was its chief spokesman, smoothed out the rough edges of the traditions of the historical Jesus and expanded the ‘points into stars’…(His portrait of Jesus) arose from his constant awareness, which shared with members of his community, that they were living in the presence of the Glorified One.  So dazzling was this glory that any memory of a less-than-glorious Christ was altogether eclipsed…(They) realized that the truth that they prized as the source of their new life was to be identified not with the Jesus of history but with the risen and glorious Christ, and that this was a Christ free from all human weakness.  The claims they made for him were at the heart of the new religion that soon came to be called Christianity. (199)  The… portrait of Christ …is best accounted for by the experience of the glorious Christ constantly present to him and his community (204). (John Ashton, op. cit)

A.4.  Beloved, the Sermon on the Mount is an interim ethic, meant first and foremost for those to whom Jesus preached and with whom Matthew taught.  These words, Matthew 5: 21 and following, fit a time when intense expectation predicted the culmination of history in apocalypse, the end of time, not sometime, but Thursday after lunch, or Friday morning.  Hence the stark hyperbole here.  Hence the rigorous ethic here, pending the eschaton, a teaching ad interim, awaiting, soon and very soon, the return of the Lord.  We know hyperbole when we hear it, eyes plucked and hands cut off and so on, no matter the witness of Origen.  We know also the wrestling with hard choices, here cast in first century white heat, as in the stricture against divorce, though even here with a caveat, for with Scripture and tradition who know and affirm the need on occasion for divorce, for the sake of the institution of marriage itself.  These words from 85ad are not meant to be taken out of 2000 years on ice, only to let them thaw and eat them raw.  Sickness would ensue.  No, they need preparation, cooking, heating, seasoning, and careful presentation.  Originalist interpretation is as much a failed project in biblical hermeneutics as it is in constitutional law.

A.5.Glory! As F.C. Baur put it: ‘The essence of Christianity is the revelation of the glory of God in the only Son of the Father, the fullness of his grace and truth disclosed in him who was made flesh—wherein all the imperfections, limits, and negativity of the law…are absolutely transcended’ (204).  What has the Bach Cantata, in all its glory, today to say of and too this all?

 

Dr. Scott Jarrett

B.1. Today’s cantata explores not just Salvation by faith, but the extraordinary Wonder of the Light of Christ come to save. Written for the Feast of the Purification of Mary, Bach’s anonymous librettist focuses on the wonderful story of Simeon’s encounter with the Christ child in the Temple – the lesson from ten days ago in our calendar.

B.2. The opening movement is as solemn as it is elegant. Set in a dance-like 12/8 time, this e minor opening chorus might remind the listener of the famous opening chorus of the Matthew Passion. The movement’s motives are heard first in dialogue between the solo flute and oboe before other instruments and voices have their chance at the melody. The Chorale itself was well-known to Bach’s listeners, and his special treatment of the phrases toward the end dealing with the Calm and Quiet of Death’s eternal sleep surely wouldn’t have gone without notice.

B.3. The central portion of the cantata sets two arias and two recitatives. And as we might expect, the theological journey moves from the most personal to the corporate, indeed global. Perhaps the most astonishing movement in Cantata 125, Bach’s aria for alto soloist is also the longest clocking in at nearly eleven minutes. The aria is scored for solo flute and oboe, with a lightly pulsating continuo line, and Bach indicates that the keyboard player is not to outline any of the harmonies, but simply double the cello part. The flute and oboe begin as a duet, but the inclusion of the alto solo completes a trinity of highly ornamented concertists. With an obvious nod in the libretto to Simeon’s old and failing eyes, the light of Salvation at having seen his Savior shines clear. Here Bach draws us in to his remarkable sound world – delicate and suspended as we ponder the Wonder of our Salvation.

B.4. By intentional contrast, the bass soloist stirs us from this enthralling music in an accompanied recitative that weaves both libretto and Luther texts in a well-hewn sermon. The wonder of the Light of Salvation takes on a new opulence in a fantastic duet for tenor and bass in which the Light of Christ shines as a global radiance, an “unfathomable and uncreated Treasure of Goodness” – not just for Simeon and Bach’s Lutherans – but a universal assurance of grace.

 

The Rev. Dr. Robert Hill 

C.1.  On a Cantata day devoted to arrivals, where are we, and at what portal do we arrive? We are looking back, now, on a decade of progress, across this land of the free and home of the brave:  cultural freedom, economic progress, recession bailout, gulf cleanup, attempted bipartisanship, gay marriage, expansive health care, immigration prudence, measured peace, renewable energy, supported community colleges, presidential grace, rhetorical excellence, wars ended, a Nobel Prize, some racial progress, opposition to guns, a denuclearized Iran, Paris climate accords, international respect, personal perseverance, presence in trauma (here in Boston too), and exemplary leadership.  But now we are looking forward, now, to a decade of laborious redress:  With students at BU—Be You—we will need to be: bold, kind, tough, wise, true, lean, strong, good, sharp, smart.  But when?  And then, how? Matthew is concerned with false prophets and false brethren, in five parts: discipleship, apostleship, hidden revelation, church administration, judgment.  We shall need the sense of glory, of joyful transcendence, of abandon, of play—yes even that found in the aftermath, say, of a fifth Superbowl—to empower and nourish us along the hard path of the next decade, a decade of humiliation that may lead to humility, a decade of crucial but tedious committee level leadership development that may lead to progress, a decade of gradual recognition, slowly, on the part of millennials and baby boomers together, that culture matters, civil society matters, organizations matter, institutions matter.  And so do votes.

C.2. Late last Sunday night the words of Peter Berger, a generation ago, may have come to mind:  ‘Both in practice and in theoretical thought, human life gains the greatest part of its richness from the capacity for ecstasy, by which I do not mean the alleged experiences of the mystic, but any experience stepping outside the taken for granted reality of everyday life, any openness to the mystery that surrounds us on all sides.  A philosophical anthropology worthy of the name will have to regain a perception of these experiences, and with this regain a metaphysical dimension.  The theological method suggested here as a possibility will contribute to this rediscovery of ecstasy and metaphysics as crucial dimensions of human life, and by the same token to the recovery of lost riches of both experience and thought’  (A Rumor of Angels, 94). Such ecstasy makes space for generosity.

C.3 In fact, and in conclusion, the eye of the Lord today rests for a moment upon a genuine generosity.  You are generous people!  If we follow his gaze our eyes too may rest for a moment upon genuine generosity.  We too by the lenses of the Scripture may for a moment see what Jesus sees, imagine what he imagines, today.  His vision may shape our own.  Then in his light we may see light.  Follow in the mind’s eye for a moment the angle of vision, the dominical angle of vision, now registered for us and all time in St. Matthew’s generous gospel, Chapter 5.  Hum the tune, some months after Christmastide:  Do you see what he sees?  He sees and honors genuine generosity.  Can we do otherwise?  The next time you are tempted, as you consider a generous act, to think that no one sees, that no one shares, that no fruit falls, remember today’s gospel, be reconciled…then come and offer your gift.  Follow the eye of the Lord, resting for a moment today on generosity.  He teaches us about visible generosity.  He delights us with religious generosity.  He persuades us of the power of generosity.

C.4.  Such generosity as had our 16th President, whom, this February 12th, we may recall, just weeks before his death.  As Lincoln put it: (March 4, 1865 (in passim))

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first…On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it…Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came…

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Invitation to Discipleship (the Rev. Dr. Robert Hill and Dr. Scott Jarrett)

Rev. Dr. Hill:  Whence cometh our help?

Dr. Jarrett:   From the Lord who made heaven and earth.  The Creator.  The Ground of Being.  The God beyond God.  The invisible, unknowable, unutterable, unattainable.  The first, the last beyond all thought.  The Transcendent.

Rev. Dr. Hill:  What is the point of our lives?

Dr. Jarrett:  To worship God and glorify God forever.

Rev. Dr. Hill:  How is this possible, in the face of silence, darkness, mystery, accident, pride, immaturity, tragedy and the threat of meaninglessness?

Dr. Jarrett:  By walking in the dark with our Transforming Friend, the Transcript in Time of who God is in eternity, the gift of the Father’s unfailing grace, our beacon not our boundary, the presence of the absence of God, Jesus Christ our Kyrios.

Rev. Dr. Hill: Given our failures, our gone-wrongness, our sin, what daily hope have we, as those who hope for what we do not see?

Dr. Jarrett:  Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  Where there is freedom, there is promise.  There is a self-correcting Spirit of Truth loose in the universe.  There is a self-correcting Spirit of Truth loose in the universe.

Rev. Dr. Hill:  How do we follow the trail of the Spirit?

Dr. Jarrett:  By tithing, by ordered Sunday worship, by honest faithfulness in our relationships.

 -Dr. Scott Jarrett, Director of Music and

The Reverend Dr. Robert Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

Communion Meditation: Ad Interim

Sunday, February 5th, 2017

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 5:13-20

Click here to hear the sermon only

Preface

‘Is this not the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice?’

‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’

James Baldwin spoke, eloquently, of the death of the heart.

We are both and landing pad and a launching pad here at Marsh Chapel.  Rev. Holly Benzenhaver has guided our quiet prayer, faithfully and gently, before Sunday worship.  Now she goes to work for a time with the First Baptist Church of Needham.  We send her off with blessings and best wishes, and wish her well, grateful for her gifts in ministry with us.  Each of us by baptism is given gifts for and invited into forms of ministry.  How would you currently describe yours?

There are many ways of keeping faith.  In my Father’s house there are many rooms.  The world’s varied religious traditions cradle treasures, precious and distinct.  At birth, our nation affirmed this.  We are a country founded by immigrants.  Founded by immigrants fleeing religious persecution.  By immigrants fleeing religious persecution and seeking religious freedom.  Immigrants fleeing religious persecution, seeking religious freedom, and determined to expand the circle of that freedom to include others, many, all.  The sights, symbols, sounds, statues, and landmarks of Boston, of New England, stand in sharp contrast to our current, gratuitously cruel, ban on some immigrants.  We know better.  This is not who we are.  We are invited to be rememberers not forgetters, to receive fresh every morning a newly remembered gospel, a gospel that in a word is love.  One such Boston, or New England, reminder is found in the love of Amos Wilder.

Our Town

Our guide ‘ad interim’ today is Amos Wilder.

Following, though, the longstanding advisement, in preaching, to move from the familiar to the different, we perhaps could start with his brother.

Perhaps know him, or his name, through his brother, Thornton, who wrote OUR TOWN, including the letter addressed to the ‘Mind of God’ and delivered all the same, including Emily and George and love and death, and including the graveyard out of which Emily travels to return to the land of the living on her 12th birthday, February 11, 1899.

Recall Wilder’s Emily Webb returning from the dead.  She asks, just once, to return to Grovers’ Corners, to see and hear and taste and touch and feel.  “Choose the least important day in your life.  It will be important enough.”  She picks her 12th birthday, at dawn, early in the morning.

Three days snow, in Grover’s Corners.  Main Street, the drug store.  Mr. Webb coming home on the night train from Hamilton College.  Howie Newsome, the policeman.  Mrs. Webb (“how young she looks!  I didn’t know Mama was ever that young”).  10 below zero.

I can’t find my blue ribbon

Open your eyes dear.  I laid it out for you.

If it were a snake it would bite you.

The milk man arrives.  Mr.  Webb kisses Mrs. Webb.  Don’t forget Charles it’s Emily’s birthday.

I’ve got something right here.  Where is she?  Where’s my birthday girl?

Breakfast, early in the morning, in New Hampshire:   ‘A very happy birthday to you.  There are some surprises on the kitchen table.  But birthday or no birthday I want you to eat your breakfast good and slow.

I want you to grow up and be a good, strong girl.

That blue paper is from your Aunt Carrie

And I reckon you can guess who brought the post-card album

I found it on the doorstep when I brought in the milk–George Gibbs.

Chew that bacon good and slow.  It’ll keep you warm on a cold day.’

‘O Mama, look at me one minute as though you really saw me.  Mama 14 years have gone by.  I’m dead.  You’re a grandmother Mama.  I married George Gibbs.  Wally’s dead too.  His appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway.  We felt just terrible about it–don’t you remember?  But, just for a moment now we’re all together, Mama.  Just for a moment we’re happy.  LET’S LOOK AT ONE ANOTHER’

‘So all that was going on and we never noticed.  Grover’s Corners.  Mama and Papa. Clock’s ticking. Sunflowers.  Food and coffee.  New ironed dresses and hot baths.  Sleeping and waking up.  Earth! You are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.

And earlier in the play…

REBECCA:
I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her
minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America.
GEORGE:
What’s funny about that?
REBECCA:
But listen, it’s not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God–that’s what it said on the envelope.
GEORGE:
What do you know!
REBECCA:
And the postman brought it just the same.
GEORGE:
What do you know!

Amos Wilder

“Amos Wilder occupies a unique position in American literary history, combining the vocations of poet and scholar, critic and pastor. He brought together the heritage of the Bible with the visions of the 20th century. His wartime experience recorded in his early poetry opened him up to the catastrophic depths of humanity, while his vision of hope, derived from his biblical story, allowed him to press beyond the negative limits of his time. His poetic eye enabled him to see connections between the Bible and literature, the Kingdom of God and modern ethics, religious experience and contemporary symbols.” (the source of this citation has been lost)

He knew and reminds us that the Gospel, in the freezer for 2000 years, cannot merely be taken out, to let it thaw then eat it raw.  It needs cooking, seasoning, preparation, and presentation.

Poet and Scholar.  Professor and Pastor.  Mind and heart.  Reason and Imagination.  Amos Wilder, across most of the 20th century lived a unity of that pair so long disjoined, and disjoined to the harm of both:  learning and piety.

A child in China.  A student at Oberlin, Oxford, Yale.  A minister in North Conway.  A teacher at Harvard.  To begin to embrace the Good about us, in us, around us, sustaining us—the good from all sides which we shall need gently to continue to nurture over the next decade of humility acquired through humiliation, national humility acquired through national humiliation—we shall need both in full.  Salt and light.  Salt and light.  Salt and light.

Here is his poem, about the modest wedding of a poor couple, in the Conway parsonage, during a snowstorm:

Wedding

Brother and sister in this world’s poor family,

Jack and Jill out of this gypsy camp of earth,

Here is where the injustice is greatest

And you feel it obscurely,

And you have a right to storm within yourselves

And seek sanctuary in one another’s shabbiness.

 

This boy and this girl with all their abandonment and futility,

Folly and dereliction,

Whirled from ignominy to ignominy,

Condemned to all the wretched chores of the community-

O tribute of forlorn humanity! Come for his benediction whom they have

blasphemed,

And somehow sense that they touch- what?

God, the Higher, all that they have missed:

Innocence and mercy and compassion.

 

Poor lad, scoured from humiliation to humiliation,

Pressed by dirt and danger, squalor and exhaustion,

And bred in blasphemy and the poison of men’s bitter spirit,

And the maudline imaginations of their lust;

Where else could it end but in this makeshift marriage?

And well may you storm within yourself,

at the same time that you feel the awe of it

God and the devil both have a hand in joining you

And you are hardly at fault.

 

Poor sister in our earth’s poor family,

Stupid and stupified and hallowed all at once,

Poor creature of poor moments,

Disinherited Eve,

How else could it come out but in the tumble of that first assault,

And yet God has put his finger on even this.

 

No bridesmaids nor flowers for you,

The groom hasn’t given you these.

You came in an old coat.

One of the gang is best man and witness,

The boy minister goes through with it,

And there is no shower as you go out.

The sleigh waits outside in the heavy snowfall.

It is movie night in the village, and no one

is about to spy you at the parsonage,

And so you go off in the blizzard to the lumber camps.

This is all the world gives you.

 

But the Son of Man of the wedding feast haunts such occasions

and understands you.

He can turn water into wine and such shame and loss into gain

In some world some time;

 

Lucy Hanks bore Nancy seven years before her marriage feast.

The Son of Man knows too well what the hells are,

and the dumb wonderings and sicknesses of the soul,

And he is the only one who does know.

So endure these gust and whirlwinds of the night until the morning breaks.

 

I heard the organ roll behind the snowfall

and saw in it the confetti of the heavenly bride chamber,

Glimpsed the sons of the bride chamber rejoicing

In that City which is full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof,

Before the Father whose face the angels of

little children do always behold.

The Healing Waters: Poems 1943.

(I am indebted to my friend the Rev. Joe Bassett for acquaintance with this poem and better acquaintance with Amos Wilder).

“The appreciation of the depths and multi-dimensionality of language led Wilder to reject any reductionist interpretation of biblical material. In order to understand the historical evidence of the first century imagination and heart, Wilder employed a wide-ranging mode of interpretation, using literary criticism, social psychology, the studies of archetypes and folklore, and anthropology.

Wilder’s inclusive mode of interpretation differed from other New Testament scholars, particularly in the relation of scripture to social ethics. In contrast to the existentialist position of Rudolf Bultmann,  Wilder maintained that an individualistic approach did not do justice to the full dimensions of the New Testament message. For Wilder the revelation of God comes through the New Testament’s varied symbols and myths, which need to be interpreted in their socio-historical context. Once interpreted, these mythological expressions can speak to the social dimension of faith.”

Wilder, as New Testament Scholar, Teacher, Pastor, and Preacher, could combine the rational and the imaginative, the scientific and the humanistic, history and mythology.   His mind and heart were formed in the furnace of WWI. His voice is yours, New England.  He knew personally and well Albert Schweitzer, whose understanding of our passage as an ‘interim ethic’, governed by the expected closeness of the coming kingdom, itself reigns, to this day.  ‘Resist not’ is meant for the time being, for the time Jesus lived and stretched out to when Matthew wrote.  It 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 Presidential 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’.

Ad Interim

So.  Here is what Amos Wilder, our guide, whose brother, Thornton, is the more familiar, will now say to us, about the Sermon on the Mount:  

Jesus meant the requirements very explicitly…but the radical formulation of the requirements is to be explained by the imminence of the kingdom of God.  The judgment was immediately at hand and an extraordinary ethic was proper for an extraordinary emergency.  We have then in Schweitzer’s term ‘interim-ethics’ immediately relevant only to Jesus’ disciples in the brief period before the end…his insight that the teaching is significantly governed by the drawing near of the new age is today generally accepted. (IBD 161)The teaching comes out of a small world, a rural and small town society of a comparatively simple kind, in a semitropical climate.  Nietzsche, Marx, Others decry it.  Give to him who begs from you (Luther: but not what he asks for).  As did Matthew, we are under obligation to appropriate (Jesus’ words) in a free and responsible way, applying them to our own situation…bearing in mind the disparity between his situation and ours (IBD 164) (Amos Wilder).  

Wilder knew Schweitzer from time shared in England, at Mansfield College.   They corresponded for years.  Wilder’s little church in Conway, New Hampshire—from which town brother Thornton collected scenes and stories, including Huie Newsome’s death from appendicitis on a Scout hike—holds letters from and plaque honoring Schweitzer, or so I am told.

Later in the month, we shall assay to understand a specific portion of the Sermon the Mount, under the aspect of this perspective on ‘interim ethics’.

Coda

‘Is this not the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice?’

‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’

We turn now, together, toward the communion table.  Those on the launching pad and those on the landing pad do so together.  We gather at the table of remembrance.  We gather at the table of thanksgiving.  We gather at the table of presence.  We enjoy together a sense of meaning.  We enjoy together a feeling of belonging.  We enjoy together an intimation of empowerment.  We enjoy together an experience of community.

Together, in communion meditation.

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 (Hoekendeijk).

Let us break bread together on our knees.

-The Reverend Dr. Robert Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel