Archive for April, 2017

The Bach Experience

Sunday, April 30th, 2017

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Luke 24: 13-35

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

            ‘They told what had happened on the road, and how he had been make known to them in the breaking of the bread’.

There come episodes in the course of a battered lifetime that place us deep in the shadows.   If the shadow is dark enough, we may not feel able to move forward, for our foresight and insight and eyesight are so limited. We may become bound, chained, held.   Those enmeshed in the strife of warfare today come quickly to mind. Those concerned about the condition and direction of their land and country come also to mind. Those whose church or denomination seems to have slipped into a spiritual amnesia, forgetfulness about the heart of the good news, abiding love, forgetfulness of the God who come Easter is addressed by God’s first name, Resurrection, come personally to mind.

You may have known this condition—of confusion or disorientation or ennui or acedia. You may know it still. The death of a loved one can bring such a feeling. The loss of a position or job can bring such a feeling. The recognition of a major life mistake can bring such a feeling. The recollection of a past loss can bring such a feeling. The disappearance of a once radiant affection, or love, for a person or a cause or an institution can bring such a feeling. The senselessness of violence inflicted on the innocent can bring such a feeling.

And how to speak and think of these things? Over the years you may have grown frustrated by your own mother tongue in various ways.  English places such a fence between thought and feeling, when real thought is almost always deeply felt, and real feeling is almost always keenly thought.  We need another word like thoughtfeeling or feltthought.  When C Wesley sang ‘unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, learning and holiness combined, and truth and love let us all see’ he described something bone marrow close to life, happiness, hope, ministry, faith.  And he also was wrestling with the limits of our beautiful language. Anyway, you, well beloved, by nature and discipline live the thoughtfeeling gospel, and for that we are lastingly thankful.

Be it then thought or feeling or thoughtfeeling, there do come episodes, all in a lifetime, that place us, if not in the dark, at least well into the shadows. You may have known all about this at one time. You may know it still.

Come Sunday, some snippet of song, or verse, or preachment, or prayer, or, especially today a line from the Cantata, it may be, will touch you as you meander about in the dim shadow twilight. Hold onto that snippet. Follow its contours along the cave of darkness in which you now move. Let the snippet—song, verse, sermon, prayer, line—let it guide you along. So you may be able to murmur: ‘I can do this…We can make our way…I can find a handhold or foothold…We can hope and even trust that the Lord heals the brokenhearted…I can make it for now, at least for now, for the time being.’   It is the power and role of beauty, verbal or musical or liturgical or communal, to restore us to our rightful mind, our right thoughtfeeling.

Today the epistle, the Gospel and the psalm lift a hymn of faith, a song of courage in the face of adversity.  It is this lift for living which beauty, especially the beauty of holiness, and particularly, this morning, the beauty of holy music is meant to provide. Here, at Marsh Chapel we want to accentuate Truth, for sure, and Goodness, for sure. But we don’t want to leave behind beauty. Beauty can heal. In our work with demons. In our quiet and contemplation. Beauty, in the case of this morning, the beauty of Bach, often has the power to shake us loose, to set us free. To make us, as in Luke 24, not just followers but also witnesses.

Dr. Jarrett, how shall we listen, both on the radio and in person, most fully to be immersed in today’s Bach experience?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

Thank you, Dean Hill. I’d be delighted. But first, knowing your love of the Gospel of John, would mind reminding us of the highlight’s of the Fourteenth Chapter:

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Well, as you know Dr. Jarrett, John Chapter 14 finds Jesus in elevated conversation with his disciples where he predicts and explain the events to come, namely his Passion and Resurrection. Let’s hear the words again:

Vs. 1 “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

Vs. 2 “In my father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you.”

Vs. 6 “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.”

Vs. 15 “If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and shall give you another Comforter; even the spirit of truth.”

Vs. 27 “Peace I leave with you . . . “

And two verses featured in this morning’s cantatas:

Vs. 23 “Whoever loves me, and keeps my Word, my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”

And finally, Vs. 28 “I am going away, and I am coming back to you. If you loved me, then you would rejoice.”

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

It is a rich chapter, indeed, and full of verses that form the tenets of our faith and understanding of Christ in our lives then and now.

Bach’s cantatas take their names from the first line of text, and today’s cantata, No. 74 sets verse 23 of John 14: ‘Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten’ or Whoever loves me, and keeps my Word. Bach originally conceived of the cantata for use on Pentecost Sunday in 1725, where we find the Holy Spirit come down to ignite the movement among the Disciples that would become the Church. The Disciples and followers of Jesus had remained stunned, suspended in disbelief that their movement and leader had been cut down so devastatingly. Today’s lesson of Jesus’s appearance on the road to Emmaus finds the Disciples in the initial stages of their grief, no doubt deep in their own ‘thought-feeling’.

Though a cantata for Pentecost, there is surprisingly little reference to the Holy Spirit, but rather a focus on Jesus’s promise to return, and that faith will create a dwelling for Him in our hearts. The cantata is rich with arias – four total. The first two arias are the more personal – almost a dialogue between the ardent believer and the reminder of the words of Jesus. These mutual assurances exchanged, the final two arias turn outward t the Church and beckon us to follow suit in making room for Jesus within our hearts. Both of these arias find their vigor with representations of the earthly trials each of us face in a life of faith, but also a reminder of the sufferings Jesus himself endured. You can’t have a Bach cantata without a reminder of the Passion and the snares of Sin, afterall.

Musically speaking, Cantata 74 is many things. The opening movement is unified by the motive of the first words, rather than a Chorale tune defining a structure. And for a movement with festival trumpets and timpani, the bluster is replaced with elegance and confidence of stride. At the outset there seems an error in order or at least an imbalance of arias and recitatives, but there is a clear internal structure that features a single recitative between each of the two aria groupings. Those two recitatives serve as musical and theological connectors to the arias on either side.

Within these eight movements, we hear extraordinary variety from Bach, from the winsome Soprano solo, and anxious Bass continuo aria that hints at our own doubt of Jesus’ promise, to the Tenor aria that nearly takes flight, and the blazing bravura of the final Alto aria. Here we have musical and theological reminders of both Penance and Atonement, but also the assurance of Love and Grace.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Given the snares, cold night terrors, noonday destruction, evil, scourge, wild beasts of this very day, it could be that a sober reading and interpretation of our lessons, including our psalm, one of the great trusting hymns of a faithful heart, will sustain us this morning.

Likewise, our Gospel lesson from Luke, brought as an interlude into our yearly reading of Matthew, reminds us of the healing power in ordered worship. First, in a recitation of the gospel. Second, in an interpretation of that Gospel. Third, in a communal engagement of the gospel, in the common bread of the church, in the common cup of the church, in the common life of the church. ‘They knew him in the breaking of the bread.’ For some, the emphasis in Protestant fashion, will fall on the knowing; for others, the emphasis in Catholic fashion, will fall on the thanksgiving, the Eucharistic bread broken. For some, the what. For others, the how. For all, come Sunday, come this Lord’s day, the possibility of new life, even if dimly perceived, even if shadowed.

For those, that is, who have walked past a graveyard or two, for those who have walked the valley of the shadow of death, for a world searching to match its ideals of peace with its realities of hatred, for a nation struggling to rebalance cultural poverty and financial wealth in cultural wealth and financial poverty for you today if you are in trouble, and who are worried today about others and other graves and other yards, and who have seen the hidden traps, unforeseeable dangers, and steel jawed snares of life, there is something encouraging about this Easter song: “They knew him in the breaking of the bread”

For those today, for example, who mourn the current condition of the United Methodist Church, gospel and word and companionship give some help. Remember that what is not the Gospel will not over the long term make very good administrative procedure or church law. Remember that Methodism has long struggled to honor both its preaching voice and its administrative face. Think of Peter Cartwright confronting his presiding elder, Ernest Tittle denouncing the central conference, and Georgia Harkness rebuking the wrongheadedness of the 1972 Discipline.   Read, of course, the administrative reports. But first remember to listen to the pulpit voices: in San Diego, in Chicago, in New York, in San Francisco, and Rochester, and Boston. Remember that it is the Gospel that comes first, and matters most. Superintending presumes something, someone to superintend. Preaching precedes, guides, and leads administration (in a healthy church). (The experience of Emmaus Road was not forged in a committee meeting.) Remember that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, affirms the full humanity of gay people as in Galatians 3, John 14, and Matthew 5. So stay on the road, walking in the journey, hearing the good news, heeding its interpretation, and being nourishing in the consanguinity of love.

For those today, for instance, in the thick of transition, the Word has this support for you: the gift of getting by, getting through, getting out, and getting home, not pausing to worry about the small stuff. This song is one for that point on the road when you just have to go ahead and risk and jump. You have made your assessment, you have made your plan, you have made your study, then you have prayed. You are not sure. But you sense a presence, and receive the courage to take one more step.

Emmaus Road brings a hymn of the heart, one you sing when you are not sure, but you are confident. Not certain, but confident. You can be confident without being certain. In fact, a genuine honest confidence includes the confidence to admit you are not sure. Faith means risk. Isn’t that part of what we mean by faith? Once you are on the road, you have to choose between walking forward and slinking away.

Step forward. Go about your discipleship: pray, study, learn, make peace, love your neighbor, agree to disagree agreeably, let every one be convinced in his own mind. The random remains random. We shall face our challenges in our time. Just this: we need not face them alone, but in the company of the Gospel, and its interpretation, and its community engaged together, one day in Eucharist, say, one day in music, say, one day in service, say, but every day with an uncanny sense of the presence of One Risen.

In the name of the Resurrected Son, and of the Creating Father, and of the Abiding Spirit: Now with the mind of Christ set us on fire, that unity may be our great desire. Give joy and peace, give faith to hear your call, and readiness in each to work for all.

 -Dr. Scott Jarrett, Director of Music and

The Reverend Dr. Robert Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

 

Fear and doubt; Hope and faith.

Sunday, April 23rd, 2017

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John 20:19-31

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Good Morning! Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

It is an honor and a privilege to step into the pulpit at Marsh Chapel again this morning. My thanks to Dean Hill for his gracious offer to have me deliver the sermon today as well as to the rest of the staff and the congregation for their continued support of my ministry here at Marsh. It is Earth Day weekend, and as has become somewhat of a tradition here at Marsh, I am glad to have the opportunity to share the good news with you today.

Fear and doubt; hope and faith. We are just coming out of our Lenten journey of repentance and solemnity into the joyful celebration of Easter; life over death, the possible over the seemingly impossible. From darkness to light, the hopeless to the hopeful. For many, the day of Easter is over – it’s reserved for celebration one day out of the year. But for us, in the church, we continue to celebrate Eastertide for weeks afterward, 50 days in total, recalling Jesus’ resurrection and the joy and hope that it brings. But it is also a time when we can explore what our faith means – what our faith is grounded in and how we can come to claim our heritage within Christianity.

We’ve entered into the second week of our Easter journey this Sunday with the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples on the evening of what we’ve come to celebrate as Easter Sunday. We commonly refer to this passage as the story of “Doubting Thomas.” Thomas, who was not with the other disciples when Jesus appeared, insists that he must see and touch the wounds of Jesus in order to believe that Jesus is risen. He has earned the moniker of “doubting” over the course of Christian history because he does not rely on the other disciples’ testimony to the risen Christ. He insists on seeing and touching in order to believe.

I think Thomas, the twin, gets a bad rap from this story. Let’s go back and look at the text again. It’s not just Thomas that’s doubtful, or even better, without faith that Christ will do what he said he would. Mary Magdelene had already encountered Jesus at the tomb, after she and Simon Peter and the other disciples discovered that his body was missing. Jesus instructed her to go to the disciples to tell them that he was ascending to God, and she did so. “I have seen the Lord” she reported to them.

But what do the disciples do in response? Do they go to the tomb to see if Jesus will also appear to them there? Do they take Mary at her word? No. What do they do? They return to the house they have been staying at in Jerusalem and lock themselves inside. They are afraid – afraid that others will come after them because of their association with Jesus. Afraid that like Jesus, they too will suffer. It seems they have forgotten everything Jesus did and demonstrated in his time with them and instead are seeking self-preservation above all else. Where is their reliance on what Jesus instructed now?

And then the unexpected happens. Jesus appears to them. Somehow he enters into the locked house and shows himself to them, offering them peace and sending them forth with their assignment– to go out and forgive sins of others. As God sent Jesus to Earth, so Jesus sends the disciples out with the message of salvation. The disciples are overwhelmed with Jesus’ appearance and are eager to tell Thomas about their encounter.

So Thomas is not initially the only one in disbelief here or lacking in faith. The disciples too, are not convinced by others’ testimony of the resurrected Jesus. They have to see to believe. They have to be reminded of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Unlike the other disciples, however, Thomas asserts what will convince him that Jesus is risen. He wants to see and touch the wounds of Christ, to verify that it is him and strengthen his belief. He wants to understand what happened to Jesus – he does not fully grasp what the resurrection is about.

This story provides a practical form of guidance for the Church after its first generation. Without Thomas’ insistence on seeing the wounds of Jesus, Jesus would not have to explain that those who would never see the risen Christ are also blessed in their belief. The author of the fourth gospel knows that the words and actions of the disciples and of Jesus will have to be enough to sustain believers long after those who had first hand knowledge of Jesus, including us. Here we have Jesus saying it outright, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Thomas is an exemplar of what discipleship should look like, as depicted by the fourth gospel writer. Thomas demonstrates a questioning faith. A faith that looks critically at the situation and says, “This isn’t what I expected; I need more proof.” And he’s been unfairly cast in a negative light because of this questioning nature. But I want you to do some self-reflection in light of Thomas’ questions. Many of us, I think, have gone through or continue to go through periods of questioning faith. And that’s good. That’s healthy. Ours is a faith that still insists on critical thinking, not just rote memorization. It asks us to critically engage with the world around us and interact with others. It begs us to be active participants in our own faith. And Thomas, through his questioning comes to a theological statement that has not, to this point in the text been uttered by anyone else, “My Lord and My God.” Thomas not only recognizes that it is Jesus standing before him, but also sees Jesus’ divine nature – Jesus is God.

A questioning faith, then, can lead to a deeper and richer faith. But what good is this faith if we fail to use it properly? Brian Stoffregen, a Lutheran pastor and purveyor of the online exegetical resource Crossmarks, in reflecting on Thomas’ faith states that “faith is not really about what we believe, but what difference it makes in our lives that we believe.”[1] Let me say that again “Faith is not really about what we believe, but what difference it makes in our lives that we believe.” What I take this to mean, as an ethicist (my theologian friends may argue a different perspective on this) is that if we do not live our lives in a way that reflects our beliefs, then we waver in our faith. If we are overcome with fear and doubt in the face of challenges, we also waver in our faith. If we assert doctrinal beliefs, but don’t follow them with action, we waver in our faith. If, however, like Thomas, we are able to learn from our fear and doubt, able to push through the questioning to something more, then our faith can deepen.

My academic interest is in ecological ethics. I study how faith can inform people’s understanding of the world around them and inspire them to lessen their impact on the world. I have to be honest with you, a lot of what I study is, well, for lack of a better word, depressing. I see all of the ways we continue to harm the earth in the name of economic profit and corporate greed, as well as, in some cases, sheer willful ignorance in the face of science that tells us how we are continuing to harm the planet. It has recently been particularly painful as the health of the environment continues to be less of a concern for those who are in charge of our nation’s priorities. For example, we cannot say that clean air and water are priorities and at the same time insist that regulations on coal mining are too stringent and allow for pollutants to be dumped into nearby streams. This is just one example of how our consumption and misplaced desires for economic gain have taken a toll on the environment. We allow corporations to do what they want because they have money. We continue to only measure success by economic gain rather than by sustainability.

In many cases, we do not immediately observe the impacts our lifestyles have on the world, and so therefore we don’t see anything wrong with the way we are acting. It is only we reach a critical point of pollution or impact on human health that we feel moved to do something. And in some cases, even that is not enough. Or, we have a sense of what the problems are but we are so overwhelmed by their size and complexity that we feel like we cannot do anything – that the solution is hopeless.

This is where we can learn from today’s gospel lesson. Fear and doubt exist in all of us, but we, with the help of God, have the ability to transition from that fear and doubt into hope and faith that is defined by the difference that our beliefs make in our lives. Hope is the biggest contribution that our faith in God can provide in turbulent times. This hope is not idealistic or naïve, but recognizes the realities of the situations at hand and encourages us to find opportunities for justice and reconciliation.

Since my introduction to his work in college, I have been enamored with the poetry and essays of Wendell Berry. Some of you may be familiar with his work. A farmer, writer, and environmental activist, Berry has written over 50 books describing the life and struggle of the small family farmer in the face of materialism, capitalism, and the ever growing idea that technology will save us all. Berry lives with his wife on a farm in Kentucky, getting his electricity from solar panels, but still using horse-pulled plows to till his soil.

Berry advocates for a life of patience and hope – living in tune with the world around us and letting it guide us into the best way possible to interact with it. Bill McKibben, the noted environmental activist and author, calls Berry “a prophet of responsibility.”[2] His writing speaks to so many because it comes from a place of authenticity and experience. While some of Berry’s  work has become more radical as he has aged, it never falls into a trap of pessimistic fatalism in the face of global climate change, pollution, and every growing agribusiness that is creating so much harm to our planetary home. He still remains hopeful and confident in humanity’s ability to recognize the changes that must be made.

In an interview with Bill Moyers a few years ago, Berry, in a rare television appearance, explained how he interweaves concepts of hope, grace, and faith into his writing while also, at the same time, describing aspects the world around him in a way that uplifts them as what he calls “precious things.”[3] Berry is a Christian, self identifying as “a person who takes the gospels very seriously.”[4] He admits that there are parts of the Bible that he understands, parts that shame him, and parts that baffle him. He does not claim to have it all figured out, but asserts that his belief “is that the world and our life in it are conditional gifts” from God. What he means by this is that we must know the world, take care of the world, and love it – things that we have ultimately failed to do. Berry brings together the fear and angst of a planet in crisis with the sense of responsibility and hope that can be found by listening to reflecting with the Earth.

Listen now, to the words of Wendell Berry in his poem “The Peace of Wild Things,”[5] read by Marsh Associate, Kasey Shultz.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Berry provides for us a voice that is vulnerable to fear and doubt, but that is still able to convey hope and faith that is found in the world around us. He has a very real sense that God and God’s grace is communicated through nature. God’s grace is both seen and unseen in the natural world.  Berry advocates that we can experience the divine through paying attention to and loving the earth, and in turn our connection with the earth can deepen our faith.

Hope, a legitimate, authentic hope, as Berry puts it, can be spurred by one good example. We only need a kernel of experience to be able to change ourselves, to make a difference in our lives, to see the world in a different way and to act in a way that will promote its sustainability. Nature, for so many, is a place where individuals feel a deeper connection with God, overcome with the complexity and beauty of the earth. When we separate ourselves from nature, both physically and mentally, failing to see the ways in which we are connected to it, we in turn can lose a sense of ourselves and our hopes for the future.

In John’s gospel, we are invited to understand that it is in the hearing of the Word – the truth of Jesus’ ministry and death and resurrection – that we are to come to our faith, and through that faith hope. The disciples and Thomas had not completely lost their faith, but they had doubt and waivered in their assurance of Jesus’ resurrection. We must remember that they are human beings, just like us. The example of Thomas’ questioning faith assures us that it is okay to doubt and have fear, so long as we engage that doubt and fear in a productively critical way. In doing so, we may come out with a deepened understanding of that which is holy. Yes, blessed are those who come to believe without seeing, but that does not mean that we should come to our faith without question. In fact, in questioning God or seeking answers from God, we admit faith that God at least exists and that our faith can be potentially deepened by the process of self-examination that such questioning requires. Once we have a sense of what our faith means to us, that faith must be translated into action. Let it work on us to create a change within us to do what is right in the world.

I leave us not with a statement as to what we should do in the face of fear and doubt, wherever that fear and doubt may spring from, but rather encourage us to question ways in which we can seek out hope and faith. Are we willing to name our fears and doubts and not just hide behind them, but actively seek ways of addressing them? Where can we find examples for an authentic hope? How do we observe God at work? Is it in ourselves? Is it in other people? In community, all of us together? Is it, like for Berry, in the natural world? What difference do our beliefs make in how we live our lives? Do we get involved when times are difficult? Do we march? Do we exercise our right to vote? Do we try to create change in our local community? Do we enact our faith as Christians when we see injustice in the world? Do we value the planetary systems around us and try to protect and preserve them, and in turn, protect and preserve our futures as human beings?

What difference do your beliefs make in how you live your life?

Amen.

-Jessica Ann Hittinger Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

 

[1] Brian Stoffregen, “2nd Sunday of Easter – Years ABC,” Crossmarks Christian Resources Exegetical Notes on texts of the Revised Common Lectionary. Accessed 4.20.2017. http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/john20x19e2.htm

[2] Moyers & Company, “Wendell Berry on His Hopes for Humanity,” Filmed: October 4, 2013. Vimeo Video, duration: 39:39. Posted [November, 2013], Accessed 4.20.2017. http://billmoyers.com/segment/wendell-berry-on-his-hopes-for-humanity/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

A Quickened Life

Sunday, April 16th, 2017

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Romans 4: 17b

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Preface

“God, who gives life to the dead, and who calls into existence the things that do not exist”

            The gift of resurrection is faith.  The rightness of God, is given, from faith to faith, from the faith of Christ, the faithfulness of Christ, to you.  In the darkness, light.  A quickened life by faith, of faith, in faith.

St. Paul, in his magnum opus, Romans, beckons by faith to faith your faith and my faith.  Some of us have been auditing the course in life and faith long enough.  This is Easter.  It may be time for you to quit auditing the course, and sign up and register and pay the tuition go to class and do the homework and sit for the final and receive a grade.  I’ll settle this morning for attendance and tuition, Sunday worship and tithing, to start.  However will you hear faith without worship?  However will you find faith without community?  However will you know faith without study?  However will you receive faith without giving in faith?  Let this be your first Sunday of worship over the next year, not the last.

A Quickened Life by Faith

            Some years ago, well before winter dawn, I had crossed the border into Canada, driving north and east, 90 minutes, in the driving snow, in pursuit of a McGill PhD, and headed for the Mercier Bridge—such a nice name for such a rickety bridge—‘prier pour mois, je conduit sur le pont Mercier’.  At the border there were pronounced the usual four questions.   Your life, your faith, bring answers to them, every day, one way or another.  Life is short.  We will leave to Dr. Hobbes the question whether life is also and more so ‘solitary, nasty, poor, and brutish’.  Short, no doubt.  And another day, and the border questions, including Easter Morn: ‘What is your name?  Where are you from?  Where are you going?  Do you have anything to declare?’  One day, in full, we shall answer.  Today, Easter day, we answer in part, affirming our faith.

That 30 below zero snow cascading morning, those foolish enough to drive did so with care, inching along beside the St. Lawrence river.  Ahead loomed the headlights of a tractor trailer.  The lights flashed, and the truck slowed to stop, and the driver opened his window.  ‘Pardone moi: Ou est le frontier?’  Glad to see some other lights in the tundra, glad to have tracks in the snow road to follow, glad to hear a human voice, I picked through my meager basket of French words to cobble up a response.  ‘Bon, Le Frontier est prochaine, ouest…’  But before I could finish my soliloquy, worthy I expected of Marcel Proust at his dour best, the driver smiled and laughed and said, ‘Oh, buddy, thank goodness, you’re an American!  I can tell by the way you don’t speak French!  Excellent.  How do I get out of this wilderness?’

The gift of resurrection is faith.  The rightness of God, is given, from faith to faith, from the faith of Christ, the faithfulness of Christ, to you.  In the darkness—surprise!–light.  Romans announces the Gospel.  The Gospel reveals itself only through faith, and it leads to nothing other than faith.  Think slowly through the Gospel, in the full letter to the Romans:

To bring about the obedience of faith among all the nations

 I am not ashamed of the Gospel.  It is the power of God for salvation to all who believe, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.  As it is written, ‘the righteous shall live by faith’

God gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…Suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character hope, and hope does not disappoint us because of the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by faith through the Holy Spirit.

Hope that is seen is not hope.  Who hopes for what he sees?  We hope for what we do not see, and wait for it with patience.

‘What then shall we say to this?  If God is for us, who is against us?  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?

Shall tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword?  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.

For I am sure that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed, by the renewal of your mind.

Let love be genuine.  Hate what is evil.  Hold fast to what is good.  Love one another with mutual affection.  Outdo one another in showing honor.  Never lag in zeal.  Be ardent in spirit.  Serve the Lord.  Rejoice in your hope. Be patient in tribulation.  Be constant in prayer.  Contribute to the saints.  Practice hospitality.

            A quickened life, by faith.

A Quickened Life of Faith (Romans 4: 17b)

            And of faith—a quickened life of faith.

            This month, among other pursuits, the icy back roads of an utterly foreign dominion, The Epistle to the Romans, have beckoned, coming to Easter.   Paul has something to say to us at Easter.  Something about faith.  The resurrection frees up the church’s gospel preaching, the offer of the gift of faith. Have you faith? Do you know God to be a pardoning God?  Are you moving on to wholeness?  Do you expect wholeness in this lifetime?

Tucked away in the winding, ice laden back roads of Romans, you come upon a sharp, almost a U-Turn, at Romans 4: 17b.  The next stretch of highway is no picnic, either.  You tell me what it means to believe ‘in hope against hope’, for example.  But here, in an astonishing curve, Paul lets slip a side angle view of God.  Tell the truth, said Dickinson, but tell it slant.  Slant Paul says it here.  The verse, one must honestly admit, as does your preacher this Easter, finally resists at depth a final rendering.    That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace…in the presence of the God…(get ready for it)…who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.  Pause for just an Easter second right here.  Paul spells God by resurrection first, and creation second.  Paul names God in resurrection first, and creation second.  Greek, like German can abide varieties of sentence word orders (In German all is fair as long you remember the verb at the end of the sentence to put!) Here, Romans 4: 17b to be exact, Paul at the pinnacle of his powers, cedes the first word about God to the resurrection, and makes creation a sub-set of resurrection.  Who raises the dead, and creates out of nothing.

Your resurrection is too small, to paraphrase JB Phillips. A quickened life is a faith life of height and breadth and depth—resurrection above all, resurrection in all, resurrection under all!  Here you are given a fatter Easter, a more robust raising, an ampler hope, a wider mercy.  I love the word ‘stout’.  Here is resurrection, stout.  Bigger than…all outdoors.  I wonder if our resurrection faith could stand a little expansion, a bigger suit size, 42 not 40 long, say, another notch out in the belt, say, an un-hemming of the hem, say?

On closer inspection, Romans 4: 17b that is, there is more.  For an unexplained reason, Paul does not use his usual go-to verb for raising here, eigeiro, which everywhere else in letter he does.  He uses another, zoapoiountos.  This means enlivens, quickens, gives life.  And there is more!  The rest of the verse, ‘non-being into being’, is a reckoning, beckoning, harkening to the creation ex nihilo, the creation from nothing.  Under every frosty evergreen, along every pre-dawn snow belted path, in and through all creation is the power of something from nothing which is best known in resurrection.  The Easter is not an add on to whatever other remarkable things one can hear in life, learn in college, and remember in dotage.  Resurrection is everywhere, everything, all the time, without measure, itself subsuming the creation, as does the creation of the creation.  Alkier: ‘Faith…without any validation. Barth (ETTR): ‘faith brings the known condition and status of human life into relation with the unknown God.’…

Paul speaks sparingly but stoutly of resurrection in Romans (e.g.1:4, 4:24, 6:5, 7:4, 8:11).

Resurrection stands up faith.  Be upstanding, faithful ones, be upstanding.  As we stand for the Gospel every Sunday here at Marsh Chapel, you be upstanding in life, abstaining evil, practicing good, worshipping God.  Go to church on Sunday and tithe, for starters.  And great ready to cross the existential border!

            A quickened life, of faith.

A Quickened Life in Faith

            And in faith—a quickened life in faith.

 What is your name?

            Our name is given in baptism.

            In baptism.  One part cross, one part resurrection.

            In baptism.  Recall the trials of the week past.  Betrayal (Judas).  Denial (Peter).  Judgment (Pilate).  Struggle (bearing the cross).   Pain (Crucifixion). Trauma (Crucifixion). Humiliation (Crucifixion).  Suffering (Crucifixion).  Injustice (Crucifixion).  Defeat (Crucifixion).  Torture (Crucifixion).  Despair (Why?).  Rejection (burial).  Scorn (burial).  Death (burial).

In baptism.  Today is Easter, the day of resurrection. We celebrate with gladness Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, in concert with the church universal, the church militant, and the church triumphant.  Our hymns evoke gladness, our prayers hope, our gatherings promise.  Today in faith we affirm the triumph of the invisible over the visible.  We hear the voice that is no voice, the words that have no hearing, the range of declaration that stretches out through ‘all the earth’, as our psalm says.  The resurrection of Jesus makes possible the preaching of the church.

We all have ways down the road we can learn and teach, teach and learn, the care of the earth.  Someone gave you a name, in baptism and in birth.

Where are you from?

            We are from, out of, a cloud of witnesses, the church, the church militant and the church triumphant, the church of the majestic brass—militant, and the church of the lilies in honor and remembrance—triumphant.

The  church.  Hunsinger:  Indicative not imperative; gift not possession; conformation not imitatio Christ; resemblance not equivalence; suggestive not technical; ecumenist not ‘modernist’

The church. (Theater) gets us in a room, breathing the same air, thinking about how to be human together (NYT Laura Collins-Hughes 4/10/17).’  Worship does the same, along with other things.

The ‘church’.  Abraham Heschel: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” …“When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”  

The church. My father-in-law Pennock, Malone NY, 1965, preached on the theme The Need of Intensity.  And he is here today? 

Where are you headed?

            We are on a journey, headed for a promised land, earthly and heavenly.  We are walking on a journey together.

A journey. Our baccalaureate speaker last year, heard the resurrection music in the hallway downstairs, and went on to run the peace corps. The Baccalaureate talk last spring by Peace Corps director Carrie Hessler-Radelet (CAS’79, Hon.’16), who called on BU graduates to “embrace the cause of humanity with optimism and enthusiasm.” (BU Today, June 2016). 

A journey.  Arts of Democracy: Active listening; Creative conflict; Mediation; Negotiation; Dialogue; Evaluation.

A journey. Think of Eugene Lang, PS 121 NYC, who paid for college for any of the 6th graders he spoke to at their graduation, 1981.  Half of the 69 6th grade graduates went to college.

Do you have anything to declare?

            Out of the marathon bombing horror in 2013 came acquaintance, friendship, love and marriage.  Hope springs eternal in the human breast.  Roseann Sdoia (lost leg 4/16/13) met Michael Materia (took her to hospital). ‘He was kneeling on the ground, trying to hold me from sliding, trying to hold himself, and trying to hold the tourniquet.  And then here I am, telling him to hold my hand.  So the poor guy had a lot going on’. After a couple of months, a friendship between the two bloomed into romance.  ‘There was an interest growing in each other, kind of quietly, until we talked about it’ (Roseann).  Nantucket, 12/4/16 engagement.  Then, in full gear he, and slow and steady leading with the left leg she, climbed 1576 steps to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, 86th floor.  We’ve spent a lot of time together and from that we got to see each other’s characters and really just bond. (NYT, 12/16). 

Coda

             The gift of resurrection is faith.  The rightness of God, is given, from faith to faith, from the faith of Christ, the faithfulness of Christ, to you.  In the darkness, light.  Faith is a quickened life.  A quickened life, by and of and in faith.

St. Paul, in his magnum opus, Romans, beckons by faith to faith your faith and my faith.  Some of us have been auditing the course in life and faith long enough.  This is Easter.  It may be time for you to quit auditing the course, and sign up and register and pay the tuition go to class and do the homework and sit for the final and receive a grade.  I’ll settle this morning for attendance and tuition, Sunday worship and tithing, to start.  However will you hear faith without worship?  However will you find faith without community?  However will you know faith without study?  However will you receive faith without giving in faith?  Let this be your first Sunday of worship over the next year, not the last.

“God, who gives life to the dead, and who calls into existence the things that do not exist”

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

Backstories of Easter: Creation, Sin, Death, and Resurrection

Saturday, April 15th, 2017

 Matthew 28:1-10

Romans 6:3-11

    The resurrection discovery accounts are flashy made-for Hollywood events: thunder and lightning, an angel or two (depending on the Gospel), frightened women who hold up better than the guards, the nearly fatuous admonitions to be not afraid, Jesus accepting worship of his person for the first time (or, in the case of John’s Gospel, ducking away from worship), instructions for the women to tell Jesus’s “brothers” (no mention of sisters) to go wait for him in Galilee or, again in the case of John’s Gospel, in Jerusalem. This Vigil time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday morning is a good venue to cool those stories and think about the backstories that make them more than flashy episodes. Holy Saturday, which this Vigil concludes, symbolizes being lost, with the Vigil a search for finding ourselves.

The most important backstory is that of creation, of God the creator relating to the world of creatures. Matthew’s Gospel, with its special attention to the Jewish background of Christianity, would suppose creation as described in the two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis. Paul would have those in mind too, but insisted that the Gentiles also knew about creation and should be held accountable for failing to live up to what this entails morally and religiously. The force of the backstory of creation is to understand the difference between God as creator and human beings as creatures. God as creator is due our pure worship and gratitude.

The second most important backstory for the events of Jesus’s death and resurrection is human sin. Sin is one of the most popular topics of Christian thinking, preaching, and practice. Since the beginning of the Christian movement, the content of sin has been a matter of contention. By the time of the Desert Fathers in the fourth and fifth centuries, sins of all sorts were classified as deriving from seven primary and deadly ones: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. This theological preoccupation with the seven deadly sins runs from John Cassian, born in 360, to Robert Allen Hill, who last Sunday gave us a litany of them complete with instructions for how to commit them. In our own time, the question whether homosexual and transgender lives are sinful has preoccupied Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Put aside issues of the content of sin for the moment, however, and look to the root of sin.

According to the Bible, the root of sin is idolatry in the particular sense of human beings wanting to be like God, confusing the difference between the Creator and the creatures.  Satan tempted Eve and Adam to eat the apple by telling her that it would make her like God in knowing the difference between good and evil. Now we might think that the knowledge of good and evil is itself a good thing. Indeed, should we not try as much as possible to be like God? Christianity has a long tradition including John Wesley of treating sanctification as theosis, becoming as like to God as we can. Not so in the view of Genesis. In the primal innocence of Eden we could just do what comes naturally so long as we are proper creatures, obedient to God in our creaturely roles. To our late-modern ears, obedience to God’s command not to eat the apple sounds arbitrary. But I take God’s command to be a metaphor in a rule-bound culture for accepting the human place as creatures in relation to the creator God. We find ourselves in situations where our alternative choices have different values. What we choose actualizes those values. Moreover, our choices determine our moral characters as the ones who choose the values we chose. Because we can know a lot about the different relevant kinds of goods and evils, if we just choose naturally so as to bring about what seems the best, we do not have to know anything special about good and evil, only about responding well to the world in which we are created. The Daodejing says something like this in proclaiming the innocence of following the Dao and warning that when concerns for righteousness arise, you know you have already departed from the Dao. Adam’s and Eve’s choice to disobey God’s command was the first level of rejecting their creaturely status, and their desire to have God’s knowledge of good and evil was their second level of rejection. It lost them the innocence of living in Eden doing fine by doing what comes naturally. Significant idolatry is not worshipping statues. It is putting ourselves in the place of God, or trying to do so. Once you do that, everything goes wrong.

St. Paul began his epistle to the Romans by condemning idolatry as the root of sin. You remember that God punished idolaters by giving them same-sex passions. Paul had no conception of homosexuality as a gender orientation. For him homosexual passions were neither a condition of birth nor a matter of choice, as we frame the debate today: they are God-given. The reason he thought it was a punishment was that he and his culture believed that all sex acts require one party to be dominant and the other submissive. Men were supposed to be dominant and women submissive. Like many cultural habits, this one had come to seem natural. Therefore, for Paul, same sex passions and acts caused suffering as unnatural because one of the men had to submissive like a woman and one of the women had to be dominant like a man. So he thought.These acts were not sinful: they were caused by God and they constituted punitive suffering for the idolaters God afflicted. What is important for Paul is the idolatry that brings down God’s wrath in the form of imposed same-sex passion. You see how complicated the discernment of the content of sin is.

Nevertheless, let’s return to the backstories. What about death, the precondition for resurrection? In the Genesis story, Adam and Eve were created to be mortal in the Garden of Eden. God wanted to keep them that way. So after their eyes were open to good and evil, God and his fellow gods banished them from Eden in order to keep them away from the tree of life that would have given them immortality. The gods wanted to keep immortality for themselves and mortality as the natural state of humans. Here was another instance of Adam and Eve wanting to be like God, a matter of idolatry, or so the gods feared. The Genesis story is delightfully fanciful in its anthropomorphic mythic depiction of God and his divine friends. Expelled from Eden, our situation is like trying to make do with some flawed knowledge of good and evil, with responsibilities for running things as best we can, sort of like minimally competent kings trying to run a country under difficult circumstances. You see why, as such klutzy kings, we are prone to pride, greed, lust, envy, wrath, sloth and all the other sins that follow from these.

Between the time of the composition of Genesis and the first century, significant cultural changes had taken place. Whereas polytheism lurked around the edges of the former, Judaism (including Christianity) in the first century was solidly monotheistic. Whereas covenantal fidelity to Yahweh oriented Judaism in the former, apocalyptic thinking from Persia colored the latter. Whereas human beings were assumed to be rightly mortal and created that way by God in the time of Genesis, many people in the first century, especially Pharisees, believed in immortality, a family of notions sponsored by Hellenism. Diverse immortality assumptions included reincarnation of one soul through many lives, the natural immortality of a soul separable from the body that had to go somewhere after death, to hell if not heaven, or purgatory, or limbo, and also the notion that people naturally die and that some of them but not all get resurrected to new life, for instance if they believe in Jesus. Some people believed that, although people naturally die, a just God needs to resurrect everyone so as to punish the wicked in hell along with rewarding the good in heaven. All these backstories about life after death were in the air in the first century; they are not consistent but I doubt many people sorted them out. The reincarnation theory did not go far in Christianity, though all the others did beginning in the first century and remaining through the middle ages up until the Enlightenment.

In the early years of Christianity, the rhetorical center of gravity thus took death as the ultimate evil and new life after death as the greatest good, or salvation. Seeking to be immortal like God was not idolatry for the Christians, as it was for the audience of Genesis, but rather the very center of the desire for salvation. What then was idolatry for the early Christians? It was the twin failure to recognize God as almighty creator and the failure to accept the humility of creatures. As to humility, Jesus preached against hypocrisy, pride of place, and the failure to for the least of people. As to God as creator, Jesus preached the sovereignty of the creator beyond good and evil, sending sun and rain on the unjust as well as the just. Of course, Jesus preached many other things not easily compatible with these points, and Dean Hill has a whole year until the next Easter Vigil to straighten them out.

When it came to understanding Jesus’ death, the early Christians made a mighty theological move. They associated Jesus with God, as the only Son of God, second Person of the Trinity, at God’s right hand in the highest heaven except for a descent to Earth as a slave—a whole host of images that the fourth and fifth centuries tried to sort, unsuccessfully. The early Christians construed Jesus’s death as the death of the real God, except that the creator, having created death as well as life, could not be ended with death. God conquered death by raising the divine Jesus from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection was different from all those other resurrections performed by the prophets and Jesus himself, as well as the early disciples. The resurrection of Jesus was God’s resetting the default on creation. In God’s creation, life triumphs over death. Death as the worst evil was broken. For believers, believing in Jesus as the crucified Son of God triumphantly raised from the dead removes idolatry. To know Jesus as God is to know God as God and not to confuse our own pretensions with God. Paul and many other early writers thought that believers, no longer being idolaters, would themselves be raised from the dead, either soon, as Paul thought, or later, or at some apocalyptic ending of the world. Believing Christians do continue to sin, as we do. But sin does not bind us with any idolatry. Paul said Christians continue to sin more or less out of habit and should just change their ways; get on with sanctification. Sanctification is not salvation, which is the promise of immortality; it is rather how to live our quotidian lives without being idolatrous. Salvation is the faith in Jesus as the true God, faith that destroys idolatry and restores a right relation to God. This faith is not our own work, said Paul, but comes from God’s grace as part of creation. Christians have long disagreed about whether, and if so why, God graciously gives faith to some and not others; let’s skip that problem for now.

Skipping over those problems, with those backstories we can now see how the early Christians, including Paul and Matthew, centered salvation on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul pointed out that Jesus’s cosmic restoration of a non-idolatrous way for us to live before God and with neighbors is open to us with our participation in Jesus’s death and resurrection. He said, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” We have new life. Paul also said, “The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ.” Matthew’s Gospel ends with Jesus commissioning the disciples to go live the life of preaching that baptism. Our celebrations of Easter are glorious songs in the lyrics of death and resurrection.

Nevertheless, our times are different from those of the early Christians. We know too much about how all the functions of the human mind, soul, and spirit depend upon the brain. Many today find it difficult to take seriously the immortality assumptions of the first century, except in some symbolic way. We also know too much about other religions with similar avatars and other ways of understanding saved life to be comfortable with the attribution of unique cosmic status to Jesus of Nazareth, except in symbolic ways. We are somewhat suspicious that concentration on salvation as an afterlife distracts our proper attention as creatures to deal with the issues in the world God has created for us. The triumphalism of some literal understandings of Christ’s victory over death looks fishy in light of unhealed trauma and continuing tragedy.

Therefore, we look for the symbolic ways in which the death and resurrection of Jesus can convey the gospel that gives us new life, free from idolatry and properly attentive to our creaturely responsibilities. The resurrection of Jesus to new life, however we might balk at the cosmic metaphors, sharply symbolizes that God creates everything, and for no reason of a worldly sortt. The death of Jesus construed as God symbolizes that within God’s creation God creates death too, and death does not destroy God’s creation. The comfort of the resurrection of Christ and the promise of ours does not consist in more life after death, “more of the same” under the conditions of finitude; that really would not help. The comfort of the resurrection rather symbolizes that even with death, and with unhealed pains, sorrows, tragedies, failures, loss of young innocents, loss of lifetime innocence, and the failure to make a moral world– even with all that, the creation is good and the creator is to be praised. Celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection points to the peace that passes understanding. This peace accepts the world as we find it and our flawed efforts to live out our place. That peace accepts these flaws as part of our place. To expect perfection of ourselves is idolatry. To expect the creator to be like a just king and treat us better is idolatry. To expect the world to be just rather than a swirl of cosmic gasses clumping briefly to give us our ambiguous lives and morally freighted choices is idolatry. To construe God in our image, inflated to a perfect kingship, is idolatry. To celebrate the creator in the death and resurrection of Jesus is to rejoice in the fact that everything, whatever it is, comes from God’s creation. Our personal comfort is in the eternity of creation from which time derives and in which we dwell most concretely. We sometimes lose track of that eternity and try to reconstruct it as a temporal process of creation, which is idolatry. This leads to sin, despair, and spiritual death. But when we are reminded by Easter that God is the absolutely free creator of whatever is real, and that this includes us with our varied lives to live as well as we can, and that this is what we are created to be, then we have new life. We live with the joy of the salvation that bears all things including death and from which we can never be separated. We live with powerful courage to undertake the tasks of our watch without regard for winning. We live with the comfort and confidence of our eternal identities in the divine life. We can say to the world, Bring it on! Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

 -the Reverend Dr. Robert Neville 

The Call to Love

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Psalm 116: 1-2

Psalm 116:12-19

John 13: 1-17

John 13: 31b-35

     Usually, when you are about to be betrayed by someone, your natural response is not to wash their feet, or buy them food, or care about their well-being in any way.
If someone mocks you behind your back, your first thought is not to buy them froyo.
If someone steals your essay and says it is theirs, the last thing you look to do is offer to help them with another assignment.

If someone is about to sell you out to be executed on a cross, you likely won’t consider washing their feet.
And yet, here you see, in John 13, Jesus does that.

You might be able to brush it off if someone is being rude; there might be serious academic consequences if someone turns in the same assignment as you, but whether results are simply unpleasant or truly dire, we have an example from Jesus in John 13 that teaches us how to react to betrayal.

Both Jesus’s footwashing and the supper after creates the chance for renewal, the possibility for a fresh start. Jesus’s love and service extends even to those who are about to hand him over and deny him, and offers renewal even in the depths of betrayal.

In washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus appears to be in a position of little power even though he is the most powerful individual in the room. Through his service and dedication to others he evokes the power that makes Mary drop to her knees and use her hair to wash the feet of her savior. She sees that he is truly God. Jesus is The Word fulfilled. Jesus fulfills the purpose of the Law, and shows us God in action.

His action reflects the full manifestation of the Love of God, which seems weird and impossible for us to also reflect. Contemporary poet Jermaine Cole writes in his work “love is wanting more for someone than they want for themselves.” Taking this definition from Jermaine Cole, Jesus loves a lot. Jesus’s love wants more from us than we want from ourselves.  Jesus wants us to be able to love even those we don’t want to love. Despite his impending death, Jesus wants those who are about to fail him to love more. Jesus wants that of us, too.

The odd thing about the way Jesus is portrayed in John is that his actions seem not only weird to us, but they seem impossible. It’s hard to live like Jesus.

 I mean, like, can we do what He does? He’s Jesus. I am not Jesus.

This idea of being Christ-like seems impossible for anyone who is imperfect, and we as human beings are imperfect — at least I know I am. His actions seem unnatural, impossible, for us.

            So I am left with this internal conflict. I am called to live like Jesus, but I am not Jesus. I am just a simple, imperfect human being.

            But Jesus is also human. In this passage, he does very human things like spending time with friends, washing, and eating. He is a human being, and his actions tell a brighter, more beautiful tale about what it means to truly be human.

In making our beloved Christ more human in this passage, the author is not making a commentary by playing Jesus down. Rather, he is bringing all of humanity up. Despite all of this messiness and betrayal happening here, this passage is optimistic about humanity. It forces a tension about what is precisely impossible for humans. Is it really impossible? I mean, Jesus does say in John 14 “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” In believing in this optimism, we can genuinely attempt to live like Christ, and this is what the disciples are called to do.

      Jesus washes the feet of everyone present. The footwashing is an act of love that breaks down the barriers between Jesus and his disciples. Peter is so human; he isn’t able to see the big picture, to see who Jesus is and what he’s doing. But Jesus breaks down this barrier of misunderstanding. Judas is so human, because he succumbs to the pressure and gives in to weakness, pursuing the temporary instead of the eternal. Jesus breaks down this barrier of betrayal, and he performs the same act of love for Judas.

As Jesus cleanses their feet, he recognizes their humanity and loves them despite their failures. In many ways this action seems unimaginable. However, this love that Jesus exemplifies is what he calls us to show to a flawed world.

Though the love Jesus Christ shows to his disciples is a high standard there are moments when ordinary people can exhibit this love. These moments can take many forms, but they typically include the radical choice to love despite the boundaries between them

 

        1.2 miles of Commonwealth Avenue divide the students who live in West and East campus here at BU. In fact, the opposite sides of campus encompass very different lifestyles. East campus enjoys delicacies served by The Late Night Kitchen while West settles for lukewarm pitas served until 2 am. An East Campus student’s workout usually consists of running to the Fitness and Recreation center while West campus students prefer using the treadmills provided inside the facility. West campus residents generally set their alarms 30 minutes early in order to make it to their classes in CAS on time, whereas East Campus students roll out of bed and find themselves just outside of their classroom doors. At times, it seems as though students in East and West campus only share the distinction of being sleep-deprived scholars of Boston University. But it is here at Marsh Chapel, the midpoint of East and West campus, that we share a brief hour together on Sunday mornings. We meet in the middle of our differing residences, perspectives, and beliefs to share in love as a united body, just as Jesus did with his disciples.

        But what exactly do we mean by love? It is a powerful word but it is also ambiguous. In English, the word “love” encompasses affection, admiration, appreciation, attraction, infatuation, care, passion, and even friendship. English puts a lot of ideas under that single umbrella term love, but Greek, the language of the New Testament, has four words to describe different types of love. From the tenderness you feel for your sister or brother, who may drive you crazy once in a while, to the way you feel toward the friend who has known you since birth, remembering that one story you’d rather forget. To the physical and romantic attraction we feel for those we put a part of ourselves out there for. But the pinnacle of love is a term called agape. Agape refers to an unconditional love that flows between the Divine and humanity and transcends boundaries among people. When Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you, you should love one another,” he uses the word agape twice. The first time he uses it speaks to the unconditional love that Jesus has for his disciples, and by extension the love that the Divine has for all of humanity. The second time he uses agape, however, it takes on additional meaning. Now agape stands for an unconditional love between people as well, not just love from the Divine. When you think about it, Jesus’ last commandment to his disciples carries a difficult task with it: to love each other unconditionally, just as Jesus loved them. He is asking them to take something from their relationship with the Divine and apply it to their relationship with other people. This is difficult because human relationships are often messy. Each of us may love one another, but we also disagree with, misunderstand, and hurt each other. How can we love one another unconditionally, when the ones we are supposed to love might be people we don’t know, or even people who have hurt us?

      This kind of love can be the most difficult to spot on a regular basis, because so often it appears in small acts of kindness. It comes with students who stand out on the plaza on Fridays to give hugs to anyone who would like one. It manifests in a stranger taking time out of their day to help you when you’re injured, lost, or when you’ve dropped all your belongings on the ground. At the same time, agape appears in moments of deeper connection with people. It emerges when you sit down and listen to someone you strongly disagree with to have a conversation, and you both walk away with increased respect and understanding for each other. And perhaps even a changed perspective. Agape is the love that arises if you come to terms with someone you’ve had a falling out with years ago, and you both are able to forgive each other.

Agape is a love that respects, a love that listens, and a love that heals rifts between people.

Loving one another unconditionally can start with small actions, actions that respect the light and humanity that exists within all people. This could be anything from acknowledging the complaints of a coworker who always just seems to get on your nerves to simply smiling at people as you pass by them (something that is difficult to do in New England, I realize). These small actions can build to larger ones, such as starting a conversation with someone you haven’t spoken to in years, because their comments or actions have deeply hurt you in the past. Importantly, showing agape toward each other does not mean you love others unconditionally without loving yourself, nor does it mean that you should ignore or forget the harm that others have done to you in the past. Agape involves recognizing the humanity that exists in all people (yourself included), and caring about that humanity through your actions, however small they may be.

         Jesus gave his disciples a commandment, and with that commandment he gave them a challenge: how do you overcome potential conflict and pain that humans experience to show love for them? One tool that we have to overcome this challenge is our ability to understand one another’s emotions. Empathy helps us to take on someone else’s perspective, and in the process develop an understanding of what their experiences and emotions feel like. The word itself, when broken down, means “feeling in.” When you are empathizing with someone else’s experience, you are literally “feeling into” their perspective. In that process, you are attempting to acknowledge that they are a also a human being just like you with thoughts, feelings, insecurities, cares, and desires. You are feeling into the common humanity you share and the different experiences you and they have had, and in the process you are validating both. This is the part of agape that can heal divides between different people, while acknowledging those differences.

         This healing and transcending of divides was experienced by our colleague Kasey Shultz on her Alternative Spring Break trip this past March. She writes, “Over spring break, I traveled with 8 other BU students and one staff member to Macon, GA to work with an organization that performs housing repairs for elderly and disabled residents. The trip was meaningful in many ways but the thing that stands out to me the most is the way in which this trip bridged divides–divides within BU but also larger divides in society: Personally, as a second-semester senior, I don’t interact with sophomores, like, ever but by the end of the trip, I had spent more time in close proximity to the seven sophomores on the trip than I had in close proximity to some of my BU friends that I’ve known for years. We had students from both west and east campus, from Questrom and the College of Arts and Sciences, from the west and east coast. We also bridged more contentious gaps, as a group of liberal millenials from the Northeast worked with conservative baby boomers from the South. In our evening reflections as a group, we talked about how our stereotypes were being challenged and marveled at the extreme hospitality that we were experiencing. Throughout the week, those boundaries that we had clung to so fastidiously were dismantled one by one This trip reminded me that life is never black and white and that it’s a lot easier to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’ when we never get to know exactly who ‘them’ is.

In this passage from John, Jesus does not call us to tolerate, he does not call us to surround ourselves with people we agree with, he does not call us to stay in our comfort zones, he does not call us to try to improve the people around us–he calls us to love. And he does not call us to love ‘them’—he calls us to love one another. Because when we truly love—deeply and without reservation or judgment—those boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ melt away.”

          As made apparent by walking down Commonwealth Avenue and crossing the BU bridge, or even looking around here in the Nave, we are not one homogenous group of people. We have different backgrounds both ethnically and religiously. How does that play into love? Does it matter? Quite frankly, in an interreligious setting: absolutely.

Our limited ability to conceptualize the magnitude of our reach inhibits us from realizing that our Christian neighbors are just one street in a collective of neighborhoods that create a global religious community.

In the soon to be published “Free Text to Life: Religious Resources for Interreligious Engagement” Jennifer Howe Peace writes: “Love is a profound and remarkable resource for interfaith work. It often clusters with a whole host of other dispositions that enable authentic engagement across lines of difference: humility, curiosity, forgiveness and hope to name a few. It allows us to say, as this story illustrates, ‘I may not agree with you, but I love you so I’m listening.’”

           Love permeates the divide between groups. Loving someone selflessly does not mean you have to ignore or disregard past differences between you and them. You love them by acknowledging and taking on these differences in an attempt to understand them.

There are two extreme ways to deal with conflict or differences in understanding. There’s reacting with pure feeling — you know, where we love those for whom we feel love and we hate those for whom we don’t. Conflict and differences provoke strong emotions in us.

The other extreme is to just give up and not care at all. The differences between us and them are just too big and overwhelming, so why bother even acknowledging their existence? The conflict is too much, so it’s better to just avoid it.

These are the very human tendencies we have, and they both lead to stereotyping and stigmatization. But agape love, while extreme in it selflessness, is a happy medium between feeling everything and feeling nothing. This kind of love helps us overcome the pain of conflict and difference by acknowledging and bearing it. This kind of love is something in between, it’s about understanding the differences you have with someone else and loving them anyways.

           If you were to engage with someone who has never met a Christian before, what would you want their immediate impression to be of you? Ignorant, indifferent, simply tolerant? No. That person should remember you for your love.

Our Marsh community tries to be a real, loving heart in the heart of the city, an inclusive center for all, including gay, straight, bi, trans, queer, or unsure. You hear this most Sundays and it is predicated on love. As your feet are washed today, or as you wash someone else’s feet today, recognize that these are acts of love for all who wish to follow the example Jesus sets for us. The motivation behind Jesus’ initial act? Agape. Love.

-Tom Batson, Matthew Cron, Devin Harvin, Nick Rodriguez,

Kasey Schultz, Denise-Nicole Stone & Ian Quillen 

Boston University Marsh Chapel Associates

In Conversation with Nouwen: Here and Now

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

Click here to hear the full service

Ezekiel 37: 1-14

John 11: 1-4, 28-45

Click here to hear the sermon only

Preface

         Throughout the year 2017, at Marsh Chapel, we are engaged in ministry with attention to conversation. Our regular weekly gathering and preaching affirm conversation. Our Summer National Preacher Series will engage in conversation about new directions in discipleship. Our Lenten Series, concluding today, has engaged in conversation with Henri Nouwen. Over the past decade, 2007-2016, Lent by Lent,we identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition. For this next decade, we turn to the Catholic tradition. Over the next decade, beginning this Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, will turn left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, and others, one per year. Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, as a few have done this past week, not from Geneva, but from Rome? For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list.

So, our sermons, largely in teaching format this Lent, have engaged Father Nouwen. We conclude today, attentive to conversation, and looking toward holy communion. Over these five weeks we have relied on Nouwen’s books, Compassion, Reaching Out, The Life of the Beloved, The Wounded Healer, and, today, Here and Now. Continue to read with us, as you have time, energy, interest and capacity.

With the ancient Hebrew prophets, like Ezekiel, and in harmony with the Gospel of John, the Spiritual Gospel, Nouwen invites, nay implores us, to practice the presence of God. Here and Now. Hic et Nunc. Here and Now. In worship. In prayer. In sacrament. In means of grace. In study. In fasting. In conversation. And perhaps in some forms of spiritual discipline new to and particular to our time? Ours is a particular, challenging time, now, and here.

Ezekiel

         Ours in not a normal time. The events of this year are not within the norm, are not habituated to the contours of normal American history. From the current leadership of this country now come steadily the beginning features of civil humiliation inaugurated on November 8 and January 20. Ours is not a normal time, but a time of lasting, painful humiliation. More than a decade will be required to undo the damage done already. Ours is become a valley of dry bones.

          In the 6th century bce the prophet Ezekiel announced a vision, a communal resurrection, for his people. As did the other prophets, he directly addressed the waywardness of Israel. Whereas Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isaiah contrasted the wickedness of contemporary Jerusalem with a better past, Ezekiel portrays the entire history of Jerusalem and of Israel as one of continuous rebellion and sin against Yahweh (IBD, Supplement, 316, W Zimmerl). Intones Ezekiel, offering a vision out of exile: There were very many upon the valley, and lo they were very dry. What would he say today?

Now we are presented, by our ostensible, putative national leadership, with a denial of climate change, and a coarse willingness to dismiss reasoned scientific consensus. Now we are presented daily with a steady drumbeat of hateful rhetoric and action regarding immigrants, refugees, Muslims, Mexicans, and others. Wait and watch the list grow. Now we are presented with the shameful need for further judicial review, and perhaps a doubled rejection, of misguided executive action. Now we are presented with a low level disdain for the highest, most proven forms and institutions in journalism across the nation. Now we are presented with a willingness, only temporarily stymied by legislative mayhem, to steal away health insurance, and thus health care, from 24 millions of our own citizens. And he said to me, Son of Man, can these bones live? Now we are presented with multiple varieties of gratuitous cruelty, including the insidious, callous, baseless slander of the former by the current president. Now we are presented with a national budget that increases military spending 10% and by the same percent decreases human funding. Now we are presented with apparent prevarications regarding remarkable, until this year what would have been unbelievable, machinations in support of collusion with Russian oligarchs. Now we are presented with falsehood morning, and falsehood evening, and a happy willingness to let the consequences of such falsehood abound. Now we are presented with a period in our own national history in which Shakespeare’s 66th sonnet lives, and groans, sauntering like a wild beast, across a humiliated land: strength by limping sway dislodged, art made tongue-tied by authority, folly doctor like controlling skill, simple truth miscalled simplicity, captive good attending captain ill. Things are worse than we begin to imagine. The creaky quasi resistance (let us give some credit where some is due) by courts, by journalists, by congress, by civil society (including a very few churches, one in twenty) that in limited measure we have seen thus far, comes from within the country. Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold they say ‘our bones are dried up and our hope is lost and we are clean cut off’.

But we are mistaken naively to consider that with which we have been presented thus far as the great danger of our time. It is not. No, the great dangers are in foreign policy, where there are such few checks and balances, such few filters, such few even enfeebled civic capacities for resistance and rejection. The great danger is in choices made and then executed, bye executive action, with regard to war and peace, military activity, diplomatic silence, and, thus global harm. No. The motto of our leadership now is not America First, as horrid as that is in its own right, and given its own etymology. The real motto, rightly pronounced, is America First and America Last and America Only. Remember this, and well, when the next terror tragedy occurs. And one there will be.

A far better route is not only possible but proximate. We need only look north to Canada, with few exceptions, to compare and contrast our acute, abject fulsome humiliation here, with what a sane national policy and life can actually be like. Right next door. I shall put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, says the Lord.

Nouwen

          To endure, over a decade to come, we shall need, profoundly need, the daily practice of the presence of God, here and now, as Scripture and Tradition steadily teach. Nouwen, now, is our guide.

We remembered last week the theological contours of Henri Nouwen’s teaching: compassion, redemption, presence, hospitality, and the figure of the ‘wounded healer’. His compassionate voice, and his capacity for community, make him a reliable and restorative conversation partner, in our time. So, now, Nouwen may help to ground us in our life of faith, work of love, and commitment to Christ crucified. Toward the end of his life, Nouwen took up residence in a community dedicated to shared, common care for disabled persons, located in Toronto, a L’Arche community named Daybreak, including a patient named Adam. In a moment one our Chapel leaders will say something about L’Arche, a movement developed by the blessed Canadian Christian leader, Jean Vanier, who for many of us, has stood out as an inspiration for ongoing life in Christ.

In a way it is not surprising to think of Nouwen leaving behind both academic gown and monk’s cowl to take up a wash basin, a towel, a cloth, and to practice the presence of God, as did Brother Lawrence, in the simplicity of service.

Most of us today, one judges, given the condition our condition is in, could benefit from a straight forward reminder, in Nouwen’s terms, of living in the present, in the ‘here and now’. My friend, a strong lay leader in our church, once said, ‘Wherever you are: be there. Wherever you are: be there.

Here are Nouwen’s seven guidelines, for such a manner of life, practice, discipline and presence. 1. Remember that every day is a new beginning. Imagine that we could live each day as a day full of promises (HJN, Here and Now, 16). 2. Dispense with unnecessary ‘oughts’ and ‘ifs’. The past and the future keep harassing us, the past with guilt, the future with worries. (18) 3. Celebrate birthdays. On birthdays we celebrate the present…we lift someone up and let everyone say, ‘we love you’. (20) 4. Live in the present. Prayer is the discipline of the moment (22). 5. Use repetition in prayer, repetition of a word, a phrase, a line, a prayer. Such a word reminds us of God’s love. We can put it in the center of our inner room, like a candle in a dark place (24). 6. Pray for others, pray specifically for particular people in unique ways. To pray for one another is, first of all, to acknowledge, in the presence of God, that we belong to each other as children of the same God. (26) 7. Stay close to the hub of life, that is to the center from which all else emerges. When I pray, I enter into the depth of my own heart, and find there the heart of God, who speaks to me of love (28).

Nouwen goes on, emphasizing the here and now, to name some of the substance of prayer. Joy. Suffering. Conversion. Discipline. Spirit. Compassion. Family. Relationships. Identity. In a way, his whole life work, might well have been an addendum to the Fourth Gospel.

John

         For the Gospel of John, allowed a meager three-week interjection into our lectionary this month, by interruption of Matthew, is centrally, even solely, an announcement of presence, divine presence, the presence of God. Really only this theological, interpretative insight will make sense for you and me of John 11. Some in the Johannine community spoke in the voice of Jesus. Especially this is so in the ‘I Am’ sayings. If Jesus on earth did not say these things who did? Answer: the Johannine prophet (s). The preacher in John 11 announces presence. I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live. You are a person of faith? Practice that presence. You are a Christian? Practice that presence. You are a Methodist yearning for a faith amendable to culture and culture amenable to faith? Are you? Yes? Practice that presence. The ancient, troubled, community of the beloved disciple, that of John, has your back.

John Ashton: 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…(His portrait of Jesus) arose from his constant awareness, which he 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 difference between John’s portrait of Christ and that o the Synoptists is best accounted for by the experience of the glorious Christ constantly present to him and his community (204) (The Gospel of John and Christian Origins).

Nouwen invites, nay implores us, implores you, to practice the presence of God. Here and Now. Hic et Nunc. Here and Now. In worship. In prayer. In sacrament. In means of grace. In study. In fasting. In conversation. And perhaps in some forms of spiritual discipline new to and particular to our time? Say, in spiritual yoga?

Yoga

         R: Welcome! It’s nice to see you here at our lectern this morning.

A: Thank you.

R\A: What is your name? Amy Aubrecht. Where are you from? Buffalo Where did you go to college? Cornell. Did you study theology? Yes, right next door.

R: Am I right that you served in a L’Arche community in Syracuse some years ago, and if so, what was that like?

A: Yes. In good Nouwen fashion, it combined compassion and community.

R: Thank you for being here. And thank you for living out and so reminding us of L’Arche, Vanier, and Nouwen. One more question. Do you lead spiritual yoga, as a prayerful discipline, every Thursday here at Marsh at 5pm? And if so, can others join?

A: Yes, and yes.

R: Open to all?

A: Yes.2017

R: Even an aging white guy with a comb-over?

A: Probably.

R: Five O’Clock Thursdays?

A: Yes.

R: We believe in God who has created and is creating….

          A: Amen

-the Reverend Dr. Robert Allen Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel