Archive for June, 2017

Word to the Wise

Sunday, June 25th, 2017

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Genesis 21:8-21

Romans 6:1b-11

Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

Matthew 10:24-39

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People of faith, hear the Gospel, a Word to the wise: God’s grace shines through and over all human weakness; human failing cannot eclipse divine grace; the moonlight of the Grace of God still illumines, even if dimly at points and darkly at times, the very shadowlands of life. True in Scripture, true in life. Let us lift up our hearts and hear the Gospel: God’s grace, light, and love, shine upon us this Lord’s day.

Scripture

Pause for a moment, as summer begins, to ponder and to wonder at the strange world of the Bible. Our own reckoning with law, prophecy, and wisdom, with gospel, epistle, and revelation, in our brief lived experience, occurs, and stands out before, the strange world of Scripture, whence we turn—where else shall we go?—come Sunday. And the works of our time and times we most prize, at some times we name ‘biblical’ in portion and proportion. And the challenges, the momentous lived responsibilities of our time and times (love means taking responsibility after all) we most anxiously apprehend, at some times we name ‘biblical’ in portion and proportion. Think of an age wrestling with health, like ours, for instance. Our wise women and men over time have begun to prepare us.

Consider WIT, a play by Margaret Edson who teaches elementary school near Atlanta. Some years ago she wrote this one play.   It was a success. She was asked to write more, but she demurred. ‘We are busy people here in 3rd grade. We are busy people here in Georgia, in the third grade. What with the periodic table, and the solar system, and the multiplication tables, and the dissection of frogs, and the poetry of America, and a bit of recess every now and then—we are busy people here. I won’t have time to do another stage play anytime soon, thank you very much. I have all I want to do with these young minds here. One play is enough’. We gladly remember her on the day of our own annual Vacation Bible School.

Her work is biblical in proportion, about death and life, a sort of commentary if you will on Matthew and on Matthew 10. And apt for Marsh Chapel, here at the intersection of academic wisdom and human mortality. The protagonist is Vivian Bearing, a world class John Donne scholar, and the product of a world class doctoral program. At age 50, a single strong determined poetry professor, she discovers 4th stage metastatic cancer is killing her.   Her young physician is a former student, who failed to get an A in her course. Her savior is a nurse, who loves her, loves her physically with hand lotion and hugs, loves her verbally with honesty and grace, loves her personally with kindness and care. ‘This treatment will be very hard’ she hears the doctor say. ‘I love hard things’ she retorts.   In 90 minutes she is dead, the curtain falling on the reading of Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny. Is Donne’s line ‘Death be not proud” to be followed by an exclamation point or a comma? It comes down to that.   For the physician, it may be, the exclamation point. For the nurse, it may be, the comma.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

*******

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more;

Death, thou shalt die.

Her performance is the kind of saving collision that can befall earnest faithful men and women, a choice encounter of human striving with physical pain and proximate death. It is a play worth reading or seeing again, just now, in the cross currents of debate about health, healing, salvus, salvation: God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;

            Biblical, in proportion, yes ‘biblical’.

The rugged biblical texts read this morning convey to us this existential dilemma. With Hagar we can sometimes find ourselves at the point of no return. With Paul we do face our endless and inevitable sin, yet are not free to wallow in it. With Matthew we are confronted by a stark twist to the fifth commandment, to Honor Father and Mother, to admit that there are times, when to do so is to do the opposite–in order to do so. One best honors an abusive parent with dishonor. Whatever comes not from faith is sin. The height of human longing, the starkness of proximate death.

Pause for a moment with Hagar, Paul, and Matthew. Our dear friend, colleague, now suddenly deceased and of blessed memory, with us in a greater light and from a farther shore, Professor Dale Andrews, regularly taught us, taught all, to consider, among other things, the social, the cultural contexts of the texts we read. We honor him in memory, but so let us honor him in spirit, word, and deed. Set these rugged texts in context, if you please.

The project of Genesis (beginning), is the beginning of creation, covenant, and providence. Our passage lies squarely in the most central of the beginnings, that of the people of faith, the story of Israel, the covenant people. To make way for Isaac, what will become of his half brother? What of the other peoples alongside the ‘chosen’? The earthy cry of a mother for a child braces and embraces us, like Rachel weeping for her children. There is no avoidance of the real costs of decision, choice, preference. God visits Hagar. Theology is learned over time in the school of visitation, of confession, of prayer, of conversation, of pastoral presence in the presence of Presence. God has mercy and shows mercy, an extra mercy, if you will, hearing and heeding. ‘God was with the boy’. At least here, at least for a moment in this passage, there is in the context of Scripture a divine expanse, an universal embrace, an extra mercy. And there is no substitute for visitation, no substitute for hearing the voice of pain, no substitute for seeing in the flesh the need of the other.

Paul’s work in Romans, as well, and whether or not for the moment you agree with Luther that this is the one, main text of the New Testament or not, likewise emerges in context. ‘Paul among Jews and Gentiles’ is the way our neighbor Krister Stendahl regularly phrased it. How are we to live by grace as people who are utterly mortal, regularly prone to harm others, in the deepest sense finally unable to rehabilitate ourselves? His vocabulary may differ a bit from ours, but Paul’s probing of the depths of life is very much our own as well. How are we to live both as healed and as sinful, both as saved and as broken? Well, here the context in full makes every difference. Paul is writing to answer this and other questions, but the writing is not his final answer. Is this your final answer Paul? No. What is? His final answer is coming. He is coming to make a visit, pay a call, stop by and see, pause in Rome and talk with his confreres. For the moment let us give Luther a nod, and, for the sake of argument, agree that Romans is THE book in the New Testament. (Or is it Galatians?). No, let us say Romans for today. But look: the whole of the letter is MERELY an introductory note to the main event, his coming visit to Rome, which he does make, and which leads then to his martyrdom. How important visitation.

Matthew has placed a harrowing set of demands, strictures, commands before us. He too was facing a decade of humiliation, though his in the latter years of the first century ad. He wanted his people steeled, ready, perseverant, of happy heart, of glad spirit, but of disciplined capacity for faithfulness. After all, those who took up the journey would be in regular visitation among others of different perspective. We do well to recall, as we did in February, regarding some of the hyperbole in the dominical teaching, particularly as recorded in Matthew, the wise, word to the wise, interpretation of Amos Wilder:

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) 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).

            We read the text in context, as our beloved Dr. Andrews and so many others would have us to do.

 

Life

 

As in Scripture, so in life. Pause for a moment, as summer begins, to ponder and to wonder at the strange world of our lived experience.

The weekly ministry of the gospel, as basically constituted, in most settings and painting with a rough broad brush, requires a sermon, as good as one can do fifty times a year, and two dozen pastoral visits—home, hospital, nursing home, work place, third place. The two are intricately interwoven, the speaking the listening, the visiting and the proclamation. One significant portion of the visitation necessarily includes hospital and nursing home visits.   In a week of national debate about health care, these rise to the surface of memory and reflection. Not only Scripture but also our lived experience, this Lord’s Day, in the announcement of the Gospel, strikingly recall us to the power of visitation. Have we not learned so in our own struggle?

On an August Sunday, in 1975, there is a 20-year old recovering from an appendectomy, in a rural hospital.   There are four beds in the modest room, 1975. Into the room come four people, a minister in the AME tradition, dark and in dark suit and collar, and his wife and two deacons. They are there to visit the roommate on the left. In the heat the talk quietly and briefly. The fans buzz. Most of the afternoon—hours—they spend in silence. Once a bit of hymn, once a furtive reading out of a prayer book. A prayer at the end. As it happens, this one cameo becomes one of the myriad pushes into ministry for the fellow in the bed beside.

Here in the summer of 1976, oddly in the same rural hospital, is a 21 year old untrained minister making a first pastoral visit on a 22-year old man, who for three years has hoped to be a State Policeman in the Empire State. His life dream. But in the prior weekend he crashed a motorcycle, risking life and limb. His life was spared, but not the future full us of his left leg, his limb. He would heal in time, but not in a way that would allow him to hold his life dream any longer. What does one say?

That same summer, in the overheated house nursing homes of small villages, many soon to be and rightly summarily closed by the state, one saw and heard, and experienced with all the senses, the plight of the sick.   In four decades much progress has been made, but we are still a long way from Tipperary.   Have you been in a nursing home of late?

In the early 80’s, a call in the evening, pre-surgery. “Are you ready to go?” (meaning intended, ‘are you ready for the procedure’)   “I certainly am not. I will survive”. (meaning heard—and what else do you think of when the minister shows up—‘are you ready for the end’.)

In the late 1980’s on Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas, accompanied by growing children, there were visits in homes and nursing homes, maybe on those holy days a dozen in the afternoon before dinner.

Then a decade later, and moving quickly, a fuller string of stops to make, some so quick that others referred to them not as visits but as sightings. Even moving quickly though, things happen, one conversation turning into another, and a roommate and a relative and another room and the day can just go. Today, one’s own mother, who would have expected this, resides in one of those places.

This year, one of our dear friends spent some time in such a home, and in recovery had struggle. One shadowy day a boy came and sat with her, a ten year old on the lam from his own family down the hall. “What’s your name?” he asked. “What do you do?” And from there, a long magic mystery in the gift of grace in human conversation, an intervention, a visitation, an appreciation, a recognition of the humanity of one older person through the humanity of one younger person. Healing ensued.

If you were to ask the changes, hospital and nursing home, in all these years, there have been many and very many. If you were to ask the abiding realities, what is the same, what is constant, unchanging, that is very simple to state: then as now, most people have no visitors. Most people in hospital and nursing home have next to no visitors. Even the inbred, trained, generations deep pastoral habits of visitation, in fact, and including those of one’s own denomination, have themselves atrophied, given the ever attractive lures of the computer screen.

So, now, with a decision on the table in our nation’s capital, whether or not to eliminate 25% of Medicaid support, when 60% of nursing home residents depend on Medicaid support, we are at sea a bit, because we have not been regular in our visitation. It is much easier when you no lived experience of what cutting from three nurses a day to two nurses a day will do to those who have no visitors.

One wrote a month ago: ‘Have we really degenerated into a nation so lacking in compassion and mercy that those of us who have more than we need are no longer willing to extend a hand to those who don’t have enough?’ (NYT, letters, 5/25/27).

Real religion is to visit widows and orphans in their affliction and remain unstained from the world, wrote James (1:27). Each one of us this week could make a visit in a nursing home. Call on a neighbor, a parishioner, a family member, or just show up on the second floor with some Oreo cookies and stay a few minutes. This is one of those sermons with an altar call, a call to decision, an invitation to discipleship. You are hereby happily invited sometime within the next seven days, to help set our common conversation about health and care in the context of actual faithful experience, of pastoral visitation (never the sole privilege of the clergy, though their example matters greatly). Visit some or someone in a nursing home this week. Make a personal visit. Erazim Kohak: ‘Humans are not only humans, moral subjects and vital organisms. They are also Persons, capable of fusing eternity and time in the precious, anguished reality of a love that would be eternal amid the concreteness of time. A person is a being through whom eternity enters time.’

People of faith, hear the Gospel, a Word to the wise: God’s grace shines through and over all human weakness; human failing cannot eclipse divine grace; the moonlight of the Grace of God still illumines, even if dimly at points and darkly at times, the very shadowlands of life. True in Scripture, true in life, let us lift up our hearts and hear the Gospel: God’s grace, light, and love, shine upon us this Lord’s day.

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

Stirring the Pot

Sunday, June 18th, 2017

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Exodus 19:2-8a

Romans 5:1-8

Psalm 116:1-4, 8-10, 12-19

Matthew 9:35-10:1, 10:5-8, 14-22

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Pretty nifty, huh?  The disciples get to cast out unclean spirits.  They get to cure every disease and every sickness.  They get to go out on their own to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven is near.  They can raise the dead! Cleanse the lepers! Cast out demons!  They are going to be so cool!

And then Jesus spoils it.   Apparently, even with all this amazing power, some folks are not going to welcome the disciples, or pay attention to them.  What’s this sheep among wolves stuff?  Wise as serpents – why do they need to be careful and prudent?  And then there’s the being handed over, and the flogging, and the dragging before the authorities, to say nothing of the public speaking.  Really?  Family betrayals and hatred?  This is some pep talk.  What in the world is Jesus doing?

The Gospel of Matthew was written to a Christian community very like that of the disciples.  They were just starting to engage in mission, and while Matthew is a Gospel, it has  features that remind us of a handbook or manual for teaching.  Scholars also note that Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels, and that the community did not see their Christian faith as a new religion.  They saw it as a new constituency of Israel.  This brought particular challenges to their mission,

The Gospel was written after the year 70, in a highly politicized time.  In the year 70, the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem temple, which was the center of worship for Israel  So there was then the external challenge of Roman oppression with its calling to account of the Jesus movement within Judaism.  There were also the internal concerns within Judaism for Jewish identity and who were to be the true heirs of the covenant.  The Gospel of Matthew was written for a community constantly aware of and  in discussion with their Jewish roots and identity.  And sometimes the community was over against them.  The warnings of floggings within the synagogue were for apparent violations of the Torah and for consorting with Gentiles.  The warnings of family betrayals came out of the griefs and challenges of a family fight within the Judaism of the time.  Jesus as portrayed in Matthew’s Gospel is the Jesus who sees the urgency of the need for mission and empowers his disciples to go out in compassion. He also wants his disciples to know what they will be up against and how to take care of themselves.

Our own situation is not so dissimilar from that of the disciples and the Matthean community.  We too are called to share in Jesus’ ministry of compassion, to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near.  And we too live in a politicized and polarized time.  No matter what our political preferences are, the uncertain situation in Washington is the 800-pound elephant in many a room.  With this come increasing concerns for the right to protest  and communicate our concerns to government.  The return of the church sanctuary movement, the concern for eco-justice and creation care, the incivility of our debates, and the violence of our racism and sexism – these all speak to our questions of identity and of who has right to belong.  Who has the right to power   Who has the right to resources.  Our family fights as to national and religious identity and inclusion are still a source of grief as well as frustration.  How do we put ourselves out there in compassion?  And given the challenges, why would we?
Well, there are certain themes in our scriptures this morning that invite us to take these risks.  One is gratitude.  Because we are thankful for what we have received, we do not hoard it, but we share what we have received with others.  In Matthew, Jesus reminds his disciples that they have received the good news of God’s love and community for free.  So they can give their witness to God’s love and power freely to others.  Paul writes to the church in Rome, and reminds them that through Christ they have the grace and peace of right relationship with God. So they can boast of their hope in sharing God’s glory.  God’s love came to them even when they were estranged from God in sin, to the extent that Christ died for them even before they believed in him.  So they can extend God’s invitation to others who do not yet believe.  The Psalmist testifies to God’s help and provision in trouble.  In return he will become God’s servant and pay vows to God in the midst of the people.  And the Israelites, delivered from Egypt and cared for in the desert, agree to covenant with God in love and obedience.  They will become a priestly and holy nation to bring other nations to God.

Our compassion comes from our gratitude.  It does not come from a place of patronage or superiority.  It does not put on a show.  Our compassion comes from our own having been loved and cared for in our own challenges and pain.  It comes from our gratitude for our release from sin and death and  for our freedom in God to choose the good.  So gratitude is something that encourages our compassion.

Another theme is that we are not alone.  The Spirit companions us.  It empowers us to act in compassion.   It gives us the words we need to witness in the face of challenge.   It pours God’s love into our hearts so that we can even boast in our sufferings.  They produce endurance. Endurance produces in us that character that trusts and expects great things from God.   Trust and expectation produce the hope that does not disappoint because we know that God loves us and will help us in our lives and in our work, because God has done this  for us before.  Even if we say with the Psalmist, “I am greatly afflicted.”, we can keep our faith.

And we are not alone because we have each other.  The disciples went out together, the Matthean and Roman churches endured together, the Psalmist sang first to his congregation.  So we bring our own selves, our talents and resources, our knowledge and our diversity of experience.  We do not have to do everything ourselves.  We can do our part and know that others are doing theirs for the good of the whole.

It is our past deliverance and present guidance that gives us confidence in being able to carry out our ministry of compassion.   And that mission is no small thing.  In all these scriptures, we are invited to join in Jesus’ ministry of compassion on a large scale.  In capital cities like Jerusalem and Rome, and maybe Washington.   In the cities and villages of a whole country, maybe in Boston.  In the midst of all the people, as a priestly nation that serves to bring the world to God.  It will take a big vision to accomplish a ministry of power and compassion.  There are a great many persons and groups who have no compassion.  They have vested interests in keeping people sick, dead, isolated, and enmeshed in evil.  Of course, we as individuals and as a community cannot do everything.  But the old phrase “think globally, act locally” does come to mind.  In a globalized world, our sin has far-reaching consequences as it separates us from God, ourselves and our neighbors.  But our acts of compassion have far-reaching consequences as well, that bring us together in trust and hope, to act in compassion toward love and justice.

Cure the sick.  Raise the dead.  Cleanse the lepers.  Cast out demons.  In our ministry of compassion, some of us will take these instructions literally.  And, even if we don’t: there are plenty of folks who are where we may have been, sick in spirit or body or mind or relationships.  As we may have, they need healing even more than cure, if cure is only for the symptoms.  There are plenty of folks who are where we may have been, dead in despair or numb or hopeless.  As we may have, they could use a witness in word or deed to the hope of grace, love, and power.  As we may have been, there are plenty of folks that are considered “unclean” by some standards of birth and religion, who in compassion, justice, and common humanity are to be included in the same love and acceptance that we have received, as beloved of God.  And there are plenty of demons, forces of systemic and even personal evil, that are to be named and confronted in the name of Jesus and the creativity of the Spirit.

Jesus wants us to be aware of the challenges.   The work of compassion stirs the pot.  It brings to the surface what is down below.  It mixes up what has been separated.  It distributes the heat.  Just because we are doing something right and good does not mean that everybody will like our work, or even like us.  But as we act out of gratitude, and know that we are not alone, we increase our own faith, hope, and confidence in God, as well as increase faith, hope, and confidence in God in others.

The other night I had dinner with a friend.  She is a practicing Christian, and often speaks of how God’s love and provision are at work in her life.  She said that she had joined a local group to voice some concerns and include some folks in discussion.   The group felt that these folks and concerns were either invisible or were being ignored in the community.  She also said that after feeling quite overwhelmed and depressed about these issues, joining the group had given her new energy and hope.  The group brought a lot of different experience and talents together, and there was a high degree of commitment to the naming of the issues, to the inclusion of those previously excluded, and to practical solutions for the challenges.  She was no longer alone in her concerns and her compassion, and was grateful to have been introduced to the group.

For what do we ourselves have concerns?  For whom do we ourselves have compassion?  The harvest is still plentiful, the laborers are still few.  The lord of the harvest invites us to join him in the work.  With gratitude, and companionship with God and each other, we can be confident in our calling and our work.  Amen.

– The Reverend Victoria Hart Gaskell

Grace, Love, Communion

Sunday, June 11th, 2017

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Genesis 1:1-2:4a

2 Corinthians 13: 11-13

Matthew 28: 16-20

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Good Morning! It is truly wonderful to be speaking again from the pulpit of Marsh Chapel today. My thanks to Dean Hill for making this opportunity available to me and to my colleagues here at the chapel for their support in leading worship this morning.

Imagine my pleasure when I discovered that the reading from the Hebrew Bible for the lectionary this week is the first creation account in Genesis (also the longest lectionary reading – thanks for your patience and participation!). As someone who studies environmental/ecological ethics, this is a perfect starting off point for a sermon. Themes of dominion vs. stewardship, our understanding of ourselves as a part of the creation and not separate from it, and the world having inherent value because of God’s care in creating it are all found in this one passage and are often upheld by Christian ecological theologians and ethicists as justification for why Christians should seek justice for the earth. So, easy for me. Slam dunk. This sermon could be written in an hour.

But instead, I’m choosing to go on a path that has many hills and obstacles instead of clear one. It builds character, right? Today is Trinity Sunday which celebrates the threefold nature of God. Theologically, the Trinity continues to be one of the most challenging aspects of Christianity to fully grasp. Martin Luther infamously stated that “To try to deny the Trinity endangers your salvation, to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.” Similarly, John Wesley stated “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a human being, and then I will show you a human being that can comprehend the Triune God!” There are many similar warnings from many theologians about the dangers and limits in human comprehension of one of the central claims to our belief system.

Let me start by saying, I do not fully understand the Trinity. And this sermon is not meant as an attempt at that. When we talk about the Trinity, with a capital “T”, we are usually referring to God in three persons or types – historically delineated as God the Father, God’s only begotten Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three persons in one. The Christian math of 1+1+1 = 1. It’s found all over our liturgy. Disagreements about the nature of the Trinity go back to the fourth century when the church fathers tried to define whether Jesus was divine or not as well as establish the official doctrine of the Trinity (for more information see the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople from which we get the Nicene Creed professed in some mainline protestant denominations to this day). The entire church has split over understandings of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. As Luther and Wesley have rightly pointed out, the Trinity continues to be a mystery to human beings. We can never fully comprehend it. But, that does not mean that we cannot try to understand aspects of the trinity and of God.

Instead of using the typical formulation which we find in Matthew today (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), I am more interested in the threefold description of God that Paul uses in closing the second letter to the Corinthians. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” A commentary on this passage that I read in preparation for this sermon referred to Paul’s formulation as “faintly trinitarian (with a small ‘t’).”[1] Formal orthodoxy about the Trinity (with a big T) wouldn’t come until hundreds of years after this epistle was written. While Paul’s use of Grace, Love, and Communion would most assuredly inform the later formal doctrine, he would most likely have not referred to himself as a Trinitarian, even though he does split God into three separate entities in this passage. Instead, what we can take from this passage is one way to express three foundational aspects of understanding how God and human beings relate to one another.

Paul’s formulation of the grace, love, and communion found in the divine may ring familiar to some of you, as it is for me – “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”. Growing up in the Lutheran church, this scripture passage was and is still used as the greeting at each service. In fact, while I was preparing this sermon, Brother Larry commented on how “Lutheran” my title is, which isn’t surprising given Luther’s particular fondness for Paul’s epistles. Used in the context of a worship service, grace, love, and community serve as a welcome and an opportunity for us to come together as one in praise of God. But we can take these words for granted. Just like in any relationship, we must be attentive to maintain a healthy relationship with God and with others. And now, when we find ourselves in deeply troubling and divisive times, perhaps it is more imperative than ever to remind ourselves what lies at the core of our Christian teachings.

You’ll notice that in the reading of second Corinthians we heard today, Paul is ending his letter to the Church in Corinth, not beginning it with this greeting.  Paul writes to the Corinthians after finding out that there have been crises in the Church that have created division between people in Corinth. This letter is meant as encouragement for the church to continue to move forward in reconciliation. Scholars believe that Paul sent another letter in between the epistles we have come to know as first and second Corinthians in which he admonished them for their behavior and was very harsh with them (he states as much in second Corinthians itself). The church in Corinth turned itself around to serve God and be in community with one another. One of Paul’s means of encouragement is to remind them that their strength and power comes from the ultimate source – God. In verse 5 of chapter 13, just before the passage we read today, Paul inquires, “Examine yourselves: are you living the life of faith?” This entreaty is not just to scold the Christians in Corinth to do better but to also recognize the fundamental reality that God resides with us in all that we do and by acting faithfully we affirm our commitment to God. Then, in closing he cites grace, love, and communion as expressions of this faithful relationship.

If we are to ask ourselves this question, “are we living the life of faith?”, what would our answer be? What does it mean to live a life of faith? Grace, love, and communion are all interrelated concepts, just as the relationship found in the Trinity are interrelational. They inform and help to shed light on one another.  Let’s explore together the ideas of grace, love, and communion a bit more to try to understand how we live a life of faith together and can be better disciples of Christ in the world.

Grace

One thing that we must fundamentally understand about our Christian identity is that it is relational. God as source of all maintains a relationship with the world and humanity. Our reading from Genesis for today is not out of place with the other readings – it demonstrates a gracious God who creates and proclaims a world that is inherently good. It also places God as the source of all that we can rely on when times get tough.

For Protestants, the grace extended by God is an essential part of our relationship with God. God freely gives grace to humanity. Grace is a gift from God given through Jesus Christ. Charis, the Greek word for grace, implies a gift freely given, even undeserved by those who receive it. As a Lutheran, my understanding of grace is that we do not deserve it, but that God actively extends it to us if we have faith. This is where the idea of “justification by faith” or sola fides comes from in our protestant traditions. Good works are not required in order to receive God’s grace, but good works come out of that faith and grace that we receive. For most Protestants, this understanding of Grace is central to our theological interpretations of the Divine-human relationship.

Why should we bother to do anything good then? If God’s grace is given to us freely, no matter what, then shouldn’t we just anticipate that it will be given to us? The answer is no, because faith is still required of us. Faith is the dynamic actor on the side of humanity in the divine-human relationship. Out of faith grows our sense of responsibility for others, for creation, and for ourselves. If we turn back to our scripture from Genesis for today, God creates all good things and finds the creation to be very good, but gives responsibility to human beings to be stewards of that creation. Although our reading used the words “subdue” and “dominion” when discussing the human relationship with the Earth, a more correct understanding is our care and stewardship of that which is ultimately God’s, not ours, and that which God finds to be good outside of our use for it. This flies in the face of claims that we might hear from some Christians today who say things like, if there is such a thing as climate change (and news flash: there is), God will take care of it for us. To believe such a thing abdicates us from our responsibilities and partnership with God and with others. This brings me to the second of our relational identities with God: love.

Love

Love, agape, is how we interact with others. The love expressed by God through Jesus is understood to be self-giving, seeking out the needs of the neighbor. Love is our duty to one another – to serve and meet the needs of those around us. Again, referring to love, Luther reminds us that faith and love are intertwined with one another. Love is a consequence of faith. It is how we express our faith to others and in the world around us. There is a direct relationship between grace, faith and love. We are set free by the grace of God to love and do the work of God with our hands.

And that love is not limited in scope. We must love our neighbors and love our enemies. Surely hating what is evil is also proclaimed in the scriptures, and we must continue to resist ideologies that are damaging to those who are most in need, but the challenge for us is to try to find common ground with those who see things differently than us. As I said before, this is a deeply divisive time in our country. Recently, Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, the presiding Bishop of the ELCA, wrote a column in Living Lutheran, the monthly ELCA magazine entitled “Serving the neighbor in charged times.”[2] In it, she reminds Lutherans of their call to be in service to others, no matter who they are, and that in order to do it we must be civically engaged. She states “We forget that we are one people. I think we fail to recognize Christ in others, whether the other is across the pew or across the world. We forget that we all—whatever our politics—stand under the judgment of God and that only God’s promise of reconciling love in Jesus can save us. Set free by that promise we can find a way to serve the neighbor.”

Aided by echo-chambers of media outlets and social media accounts, we can easily find the people who agree with us and reject/block/unfriend those who don’t. We can forget that those who hold beliefs that differ from ours are still people. Extending love does not mean that we necessarily have to agree with those who hold different beliefs than our own, but we must remember that our need to be in service to others outweighs political affiliation, race, religious identity, or sexual orientation, gender. True kindness and compassion should be our guiding light.

It is often in moments of tragedy and extreme strain that we see the walls that divide us come down. We saw it a few weeks ago in Manchester, as people offered their homes to complete strangers, and as people lined up around the corner to donate blood for those who were injured. We saw it a year ago this weekend, when over fifty people were murdered at Pulse nightclub in Orlando during Pride and a great outpouring of care and support came from people all over the U.S. and the world. We saw it in Boston four years ago as we proudly proclaimed “Boston Strong” after the events surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing.  But must we wait until tragedy strikes to show our support for others? Can we be reliable neighbors every day for those we often fail to recognize who need our help the most? What does it mean to be in a community with others and to share in God’s love?

Communion

This brings us to the last of the attributes Paul assigns to God. Communion. Koinonia. A fellowship or gathering. Christianity is not a solitary endeavor. In order to be relational, we must interact with others. We come together in worship to hear the scripture together and to praise God, but we also come together in many other ways to live out our Christian witness. We commonly think of communion in terms of Holy communion – the Lord’s Supper that we share together during worship. We share in this sacrament with each other and with God at the same time, in a very obvious way. But communion and fellowship can be expressed in so many other ways. Obviously food is a great way to bring people together. During the school year, Marsh Chapel offers many opportunities for chapter members, students, and faculty to come together over a meal. I host Global Dinner Club each week. This space encourages students to not only learn some much-needed cooking skills for when they are on their own after college, but also gives us opportunity to find places of commonality or difference in our backgrounds. Undergraduate and graduate students, people of faith and people of no faith, domestic and international gather in preparing food, eating and having conversation. We’ve talked about everything from television shows to the finer nuances of process theology during these dinners and everyone walks away learning something new, like the history of the great molasses flood in Boston, and, more importantly, building bonds with other people. We can all recognize the inexpressible feeling that develops when a group of people comes together. I like to think that feeling, that connection we share is God. God is experienced through faith, through grace, through love, and in communion with others.

Some communities we get to voluntarily choose, for example, what church we attend or the friends we keep close. Others we have less of a choice in: our families, our neighbors (to an extent), and our school or work colleagues, even the ecosystems we are a part of. But whether our communities are self-selected or not, we have the opportunity in all cases to try to learn a little more about one another and to share with one another. Our community as a Christian congregation is important, to be sure, but we are not only in Christian contexts. We can bring our faith and our values to these other communities by practicing the love that God enables us to share with one another. When Jesus sends the disciples out to go and make disciples in all nations, to form a worldwide community of people of faith, it is through the word and baptism, but also through the actions of those whom he sends that disciples are made. Our faith informs our actions and those actions make an impression on the world around us.

Grace, Love, and Communion. As a welcoming wish at the start of a worship service or the departing words of a letter written nearly 2000 years ago, the Christian message is delivered through these three interrelated concepts. Our challenge now is to go out into the world and live into them as fully as we can to be disciples of Christ.
Amen.

– Jessica Ann Hittinger Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students


[1] Matt Skinner, “Commentary on 2 Corinthians 13:11-13,” WorkingPreacher.org, May 18, 2008. Accessed June 7, 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3258

[2] Elizabeth Eaton, “Serving the Neighbor in Charged Times,” Living Lutheran, June 2, 2017. Accessed June 7, 2017. https://www.livinglutheran.org/2017/06/serving-neighbor-charged-times/

Gift on the Altar

Sunday, June 4th, 2017

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John 17: 1-10

Click here to listen to the meditations only

A gift on the altar.  Your life is a gift on the altar.  What gift in what way on what altar?

The month of June each year provides a space and time for various gifts shared and received:

A Community Luncheon today (Marsh Room):

Featuring a presentation on planned giving by Sharon Wheeler, Associate Director of Planned Giving at Boston University. Then…a wedding of two members of our community, to which all are cordially invited.

June 11 a Summer Reading Discussion Group, convened by Ray Bouchard, at 9:45am.

On June 18 our Annual Father’s Day Brunch, 9:30 to 11:00am, meant for ALL.

Then on June 25, from noon to 1:30pm Vacation Bible School: “Pizza and Psalms” For children, youth, and the young at heart.  Led by Bob and Jan Hill.  Come and join us.  Jan says everyone can sing.  And she actually knows something about teaching.

You and you all who have chosen to bear witness to faith, here on a University Campus, live out gifts on altars.  You welcome freshmen, as they arrive, eager and sometimes lonely.  You bid farewell to them four years later, after they have both warmed and stolen your hearts, and the good bye hurts because it so good.  You take up your place in the heart of an academic enterprise, to recall with joy that learning and meaning are both important, that head and heart are both utterly human, that all of us are better when we are loved, even if we don’t get an A.  Some graduate Summa, some Magna, some Cum, and some of us just graduate THANK YOU LAUDE (LORDY)!  You have to be willing to say hello, and to say good bye, here, and you are, and you do.  What a gift on the altar of life!

A gift on the altar.  Your life is a gift on the altar.  What gift in what way on what altar?

In a few minutes we will bring our ordered hour of worship to a climactic close.  Ushers will come forward out of the gathered people of God.  A hymn of praise will be sung.  Two of our fellows, a man and a woman, maybe a couple, a mother and daughter, two old friends, perhaps two youth, will stand before the altar, collection plates in hand.  A gift will be placed upon a beautiful altar.  We will offer a prayer.  Almost every week, as we conclude our one hour of common prayer, we do this together.

Why do we do this?

Our physical statement, a regular occurrence in most worship services, particularly adorned and beautified in the habits of this congregation, is meant to be a ringing affirmation, in this moment of a gift upon the altar.

Pentecost causes us to consider this, as does today’s Gospel, John 17:1-10

More than we regularly acknowledge, issues of life and action that may not seem theological at first, at depth really are.  How shall we offer our time, energy, and money?   What is the Christian understanding of warfare?  Is personal possession, ownership of property, a proper feature of a good life?  What is the status of those at the start, children?  What value do we ascribe to frail, mature life?  How are women and men to relate?  What are faithful uses of money?

At length, or depth, all of these questions, on which our daily lives founder or are founded or both, require a theological horizon, demand a theological response, deserve a theological assessment.

The great strength of our now passing post-modern, or even post-Christian era, has been a sense of limits, a sense of humility, even ignorance before the question of truth.  Our time more than any other has honored the biblical and human perception that truth is very difficult to determine, nearly impossible to ascertain, as Solzenhitzyn better than most did remind us.  In life there is much gray.  The great weakness of our now passing post-modern, or even post-Christian era, has been this same sense of limits, sense of humility and ignorance before questions of ultimate reality.  Too readily we have let the sense that truth is difficult to ascertain become a despondent acceptance of the impossibility of affirming truth.  Too readily we have let the sense that truth seems nearly impossible to ascertain become a fatalistic denial that any truth at all is preferable to any other.  The truth of relativity has given way to the falsehood of relativism.

To this the word of truth responds.

A gift on the altar.  Your life is a gift on the altar.  What gift in what way on what altar?

Listen again to the strange, stark mystery of today’s Gospel, come Pentecost, come the day of spirit, come the presence of the Comforter, the Advocate, the Paraclete.

‘The hour has come, glorify your Son’.  In John, glory means the cross.  Jesus’ glorification is the completion of his life in death, ad gloriam dei.

‘Eternal Life’.  This is eternal life that they may know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.  Notice how different in five ways this simple verse is from Matthew, Mark and Luke.

‘I glorified you by finishing the work’.  The word is the same, the last upon the lips of Jesus in this gospel, ‘finished, it is finished’.

‘Before the world existed’.  Eternal life precedes created life.  God is not in time, time is in God.  Eternal life, love, resurrection are both prelude and postlude.  Love is God’s first name.  Or, Resurrection is God’s first name, Creation God’s middle name, and…Surname…Inspiration.  In this Gospel at any rate.

‘They have kept thy word’.  In our time, an emerging time of the famine of the word, words to speak and hear are hard to find.  The Risen Jesus whose voice emanates from 2000 years ago, out of the imagination of a dear soul beloved community preacher calls out a word and for a word kept.

‘All mine are yours and yours are mind and I have been glorified in them’.  He speaks from beyond.  The words of glory come before the moment of glory, the cross, in which all is finished.  Eternal life.  Life, Love, Light.

A gift on the altar.  Your life is a gift on the altar.  What gift in what way on what altar?

Someone recently proposed that we resist alienation by way and by means of participation.  Resist alienation through participation.

We are 6 months into a decade of humiliation.  The path ahead requires steady participation, personal discipline, the service of God with gladness, a sure hold on a common hope.  For this, we shall need each other, and the regular engagements of worship.

Each of us oversees a mental parking lot, over which we have no control for entry and exit.   Worries come and go, parking and leaving.  Fretful cares come and go, parking and leaving.  Anxieties come and go, parking and leaving.  Just when you think the lot has emptied out for a bit, another jalopy, hooptie, pulls in.  Though the parking lot is imaginary, and the worries are invisible, these cars are real, real metal, vinyl and rubber.   In quiet, come Sunday, we can simply watch, as the traffic pulls in and out.  Automobiles of anxieties global, national, cultural, denominational, vocational, personal, all.  Some days the lot is filled.  Others, closer to empty.  You have little to no control over these parking patterns.  That may be good news.  Just let the traffic flow.

You do have a life, a gift on the altar, in faith, to offer, in the song of the Apostle, Have no anxiety about anything but in all things in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving lift your needs to God.

A gift on the altar.  Your life is a gift on the altar.  What gift in what way on what altar?

Our community has become a generous, giving one, over many years.  The Lord loves a cheerful giver, and the Lord loves you.  You Marsh Chapel folks are known as giving, generous, tithing people.  You are not alone in this, but you are exemplary in this.  This past week many of us spent in our Annual Conferences, doing various Methodist things like singing lustily, and like eating endlessly, and like arguing vociferously, and like finding ways to hug one another and pray for one another, even after our words have stung.   There was a woman, now a minister in the Adirondacks, who as a child, with her parents, in a very modest home in the Finger Lakes fed a simple dinner to an untrained and uneducated and unprepared young preacher, 1976.   It both bothers and moves me to remember that the ‘table’ was a cardboard box, upended and covered with a white cloth.  A gift on the altar.  One retiree recalled her first church of 21 people, whom she asked, ‘Do you use the lectionary’?  The lay leader said, ‘Sure, you can use either pulpit or the lectionary to speak from’.  She was telling others to translate the tradition, not to serve it raw.  And there were bitter differences, growing more painful by the years, largely over the fundamental gospel issue of the full humanity of gay people.  But as the proceedings wandered along, and now not as 21 year old preacher in name only, but as an aging, rookie, grandfather in training (‘dad, you are just another old white guy with a comb over’), my mind could not help but wander across the landscape of love in the churches in that room.  It does not take long to go from being a young turk to becoming an old turkey.

I remember a widow with four teenagers who somehow still found the time to run a Wednesday dinner for all the neighborhood kids.

I remember a recovering alcoholic, living alone in a trailer, who took on the job of raising $4000 for preachers’ retirements, out along the blue highways of the North Country.

I remember a couple who decided to run an old car two more years, so that they could help to build a new church, out along the blue highways of urban upstate New York.

I remember two retired teachers, loving housemates forever, who singlehandedly started an endowment fund, out along the blue highways of the Finger Lakes.

I remember the story of a janitor at the University of Pennsylvania who the left the school $2 million dollars in his will, along the Quaker state blue highways.

I remember reading about a maid in Mississippi who never graduated even from elementary school, who cleaned student rooms for 40 years, and left this world heavily endowing a scholarship fund for minority students at Ole Miss, out along the blue highways of the sweltering south.

I remember a Colgate graduate who put the church’s endowment into his will, and so put his estate into the endowment.  Someone here could do that, Colgate graduate or not.

And now, coming home to Marsh Chapel, I remember Daniel Marsh.  I tell you, without the tithing of other generations, we would be worshipping in a pup tent.  But they gave us something, a beautiful, reverent, charming Chapel.  They made it their gift.  So much so that Daniel and his wife are buried right here, their ashes right in the shadow of the altar, right before the pulpit.

A gift on the altar.  Your life is a gift on the altar.  What gift in what way on what altar?

My friend Doug Mullins told me once about another gift on the altar, with which to end:

Belinda was a single parent, trying to take care of herself and raise a five year old Ryan.  She was a single parent because when her husband learned that the requisite surgery for her cancer would leave her disfigured, he left.  One evening Belinda tucked Ryan into bed and was reading a book to him.  He interrupted her to ask if she had bought that book for him.

“Yes”, she said.

He then inquired if she had also bought the bed in which he slept.

Again the answer was “Yes”.

Had she bought the house they called home?

Yes, she said.

And what about the new sweater he liked so much?

“Yes”, she said, she had bought that too.

He thought about how good she had been to him, supplying all his needs, and finally he said, “Mommy, get my piggy bank.  There are seven pennies in it.  Take them and get something you really want for you.”

You know, everything we have is a gift from God.  Life, breath, faith, forgiveness, and hope of eternal life.  Cross, altar, gift.  Life, light, love.

This summer think, again, about tithing.

A gift on the altar.  Your life is a gift on the altar.  What gift in what way on what altar?

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.