Archive for July, 2017

Sunday
July 30

A Little Beauty

By Marsh Chapel

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Genesis 29:15-28

Romans 8:26-39

Matthew 13:31-34, 44-52

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Ant

   The beauty of summer, sub specie aeternitatis, and particularly in a climate, like yours, long in darkness and deep in cold, the beauty that is of the four score summers God gives you, at the largest extent of God’s favor, is itself a matter for parabolic teaching, in the spirit of the Gospel for the day.  Let us meditate together today for a few minutes by taking a homiletical walk, down a dusty summer road, watching for a little beauty.   In the mind’s eye, and with the sun upon our backs, let us meander a moment, and see what we can see.  After all, Jesus taught in parables, ‘teaching not one thing without a parable.’

Start small.  There in front of your left moccasin moves a lonely red ant, the lowliest of creatures, yet, like a Connecticut Yankee, bursting with the two revolutionary virtues, industry and frugality.   Benjamin Franklin wrote, admiring such frugality and industry, and dubious of much dogmatic preaching, “none preaches better than the ant, and he says nothing.”  A good reminder.

While we step around the ant, the little insect recalls others:  grasshoppers, flies, locusts.   Simple creatures.   Some of our friends prefer the heat of the west, and its insects, to the rain of the east, and ours.  The locusts, burning dry heat, flat arid landscape, and lack of water, out west, would seem to offer no competition.  Yet, some love the virtue of the good people known there.  Some like the simple rhythm of town life, and enjoy the simple summer gatherings—reunions, little league, band concerts, parades. “The people there—they are folks with good hearts.”  And as Jesus taught his students, “if people have some measure of goodness themselves, think how good their maker must be.

Maybe that is the beauty of summer, to pause and appreciate simple, good people, folks with good hearts.

 

Berry

   We can stop up the path just a bit.   Raspberries, blackberries, all kinds of wild fruit are plentiful now.  Jesus taught us to ask, simply, for bread and a name.  We daily need food and forgiveness.  Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we forgive all who are indebted to us.  What bread does for the body, pardon does for the soul.   One of the gifts of summer is the time and leisure to remember this.   A church should be fullest in the summer, for this reason, this recognition of our ultimate needs.

Our neighbor has baked some of these wild berries into morning muffins.  We stop to savor them, with butter and coffee.   We listen to one another along the path.  So we are nourished, by one another, and made ready for the next steps in the journey.

Maybe this is the beauty of summer, to pause and make space for real worship, for that which can feed our hungers, and set us free for the next adventure.

 

Fence

   Up ahead there is an old fence.  For a river to be a river, it needs riverbanks high enough to contain the flowing water.  For a lake to hold its integrity it needs a shoreline that stands and lasts.  For a field to retain any semblance of usefulness, it needs fences to mark its beginnings and endings.   For an individual to have any identity one needs the limits of positive improvement, as Jesus taught about perseverance, and of protective caution, as Jesus taught about times of trial.  For a life to have meaning and coherence, it needs those riverbanks, shorelines, fences, and limits that give life shape and substance.

We can spend some summer time mending fences.  Especially at a time and across a country so keenly divided, a house divided against itself.  It is hard work, but utterly crucial. Keep your friendships in good repair, and mend the fences where they need it.    Think, heal, write, love.

Some years ago, I came by this same old fence.  I was walking with my dad, as it happened.  We had some coffee and a muffin.  Then we started off together, down the old road, he to walk with a gnarled walking stick, and I to jog after my own eccentric fashion.  But for a mile up to the same fence, to the place where the road parts, we walked together.  We shuffled and talked a little, remembering the name of a former neighbor, spotting a new garden planted, making a plan or two for later on.   We remembered an old friend, a old style doctor, long dead.  He remembered that Dr Thro came to visit him the day his mother died.  “It’s hard when your mother dies,” he said, “it gets you right in the chest!”  I remembered Dr. Thro swimming the length of the lake and, while he did so, barking various orders at the universe and some of this patients along the shoreline, riverbank, fence—along the virtuous limits that make a life.   We came to fork, one taking the high road and one the low, and with that an embrace and a word and a glance and we were alone again.  Now, along that fence, summer by summer, I walk with my dad again, feeling him beside me.

Maybe this is the beauty of summer, to set limits and keep them, to mend our fences and protect them, to honor one another in faith and love.

 

Cloud

   This is a clear day, in our reverie, but even so there are a few dancing clouds, white and bright.    We try to make sense of the summer, and to make space for the summer, and to honor this season, one that brings together meteorological splendor and theological insight.    In our chapel, we put together different summer experiences—a wedding and luncheon one day, a talk on Summer reading another, a brunch to honor parents, dads and all, a singing Vacation Bible School for the Young and Young at Heart, a Holiday Brunch, an annual summer national preacher series, and fellowship each week on the plaza–to allow meteorology and theology to dance well together.

There is a dimension of possibility alive in the summer that is hard to approximate in the rest of the year.  We alter our summer habits, not at all to suggest that devotion is less central now, for in some ways summer ought to be the most spiritual of the seasons, but rather to accommodate our life to the necessary rhythms of life around us.

It is astounding to hear again in the Gospel that the kingdom of heaven is hidden, small, lovely, precious, immaterial, consequential, and secret.  But so Jesus teaches us, parable by parable. Summer is the season and devotion is the focus of all such wonder and possibility.

Maybe this is the beauty of summer, to pause and allow a fuller consideration of all the possibilities around us.   

Breeze

   A summer wind accompanies us as we walk farther down the dirt road.   A fawn—or was it a fox?—darts into the brush.  The smell apples, already ripening, greets us at the turn.  More sun, bigger and higher and hotter, makes us sweat.

I guess every family has a family secret or two, that one subject that dominates every present moment by it the sheer weight of its hidden silence, that one taboo topic that somehow screams through its apparent muteness.   Daddy’s drinking.  Junior’s juvenile record.  Grampa’s prison term.  The so-called elephant in the room.  True of nations, too, and businesses, and projects and even churches.  You find it, finally, by asking gently about what is feared.

The human family has this same kind of family secret.  Something we avoid discussing, if at all possible, something that makes us fearful, something that dominates us through our code of silence.  It is our mortality.  Our coming death is the one thing that most makes us who we are, mortal, mortals, creatures, sheep in Another’s pasture, not perfect because not perfectible, the image of God but not God, “fear in a handful of dust”.  Yet we are so busy with so many other things that this elemental feature of existence we avoid.

In the face of death, we turn heavily upon our faith.  It is the steady and warming wind, the breeze of the Holy Spirit, that keeps us and strengthens us all along the road.  Here is the argument.  If your children ask you for something, do you not provide it?  And you are evil!  (Not to put too fine a point on it!)  Imagine, then, how much more God will provide for the children beloved of the all powerful, holy God.  You are loved, beloved, graced, embraced—a child of the living God.

Maybe this is the beauty of summer, to number our days that we get hearts of wisdom, to measure the mystery about us and give over our imaginations to a consideration of our limits.

Neighbor

   Walking along, you may conjure or contract a traveling bug.  Shall we drive north?  A popular refrain in Montreal runs like this: “Canada could have had the best of three worlds: British government, American industry, and French culture; instead, Canada collected the worst of all three: French bureaucracy, British economics, and American culture!”

But don’t you believe it. As that proverb’s tangled contents and tone of wry self-criticism tell, Canada has a great deal to offer you and me. We can learn from our northern neighbors. This is part testimony and part admonition: Take a look at the Dominion of Canada. In particular, let me suggest three things that we can bring across the border.

First, there is the Anglican Church of Canada. Its influence far exceeds that of its sister Protestant Episcopal church in the United States. Though still statistically small, Canadian Anglicanism in one sense is the ecclesiastical leader of its land. We United Methodists-especially those out of the Methodist Episcopal tradition-need to hear the voice of the Church of England. After all, we are called to honor our father and mother; where would Methodism be without its Anglican mother? In this age when theological judgment is so frightfully difficult, the history and tradition and liturgy of this parent church have much to offer us. To take just one example: We here south of the border make much of religious experience. But there are some things that should not have to be learned from experience. The richness of our Anglican heritage can remind us of this.

Second, there is Dr. Douglas John Hall, professor at McGill University in Montreal, former student of Paul Tillich, and author. His book Lighten Our Darkness sounds like a voice of realistic truth crying in pious wilderness. For example:

The test of theological authenticity is whether we can present Jesus as the crucified. To be concrete: Can one perceive in the Jesus of this theology a man who knows the meaning of meaninglessness, the experience of negation, the anguish of hopelessness? Does he encounter the absurd, and with trembling? Would a man dare to confess to this Jesus his deepest anxieties, his most ultimate questions? Would such a Jesus comprehend the gnawing care of a generation of parents who live every day with the questions: Will my children be able to survive as human beings? …Will there be enough to eat? Will they be permitted to have children? Would he, the God-Man of this theology, be able to weep over the dead bodies of little children in Southeast Asia and Brazil, as he wept over his friend Lazarus? … Would he be able to agonize over the millions of other beings-not quite little-children, fetuses-for whom there was no place; and over the mothers…Could he share our doubt: doubt about God, about man, about life, about every absolute? Could he understand why we cling to expectations that are no longer affirmed or confirmed by experience, why we repress the most essential questions? Would such a Christ understand failure? Could he participate in our failure? Or is he eternally above all that?

      Douglas J. Hall, Lighten Our Darkness: Toward an Indigenous Theology of the Cross. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), 211-212.

Third, there is the United Church. It was formed in 1925 as a union among Methodists, some Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and other Protestant groups. Today it is a church of some 2 million members (in a country of only 30 million), built out of a combination of Methodist and Presbyterian policy. It is not a church without problems. But for those of us who are still interested in walking a little further down the road toward ecumenism, the experience of the United Church in both its victories and defeats offers a glimpse of what our future might be like.  Its predecessor denominations, including Methodism, gave up their inheritance for a new future, gave up their name and habits and protections, for the joy of a better future, a church not only with a yesterday, but with a tomorrow.

Canadian tourism commercials entice us to the natural, scenic, and cultural wonders of Canada, our neighbor to the north, le Europe prochain “the world next door.”  On a dusty, dreamy summer walk, I believe, we have at least three other reasons for interest: Anglicanism, Doug Hall, the United Church. Take a look.

Maybe this is the beauty of summer, to nourish our souls in the heart and heat of a looming decade of humiliation, with still nine years to go, and to learn from our smaller, little neighbor due north.  Sometimes it can good to fall in love with the soteriology next door, come summer.

You

   May the Good and Gracious God, in the beauty of holiness, make of all of us attentive people, simple and true in our virtues of the heart, nourishing and nourished in pardon, disciplined by hard even bitter fences of peace, inspired by gracious clouds billowing and high, and supported all the day long by a summer wind, a spirited faith in the face of death, and a bright willingness to continue to journey, travel, learn and grow.  May we find a little summer beauty in the ant, the berry, the fence, the cloud, the breeze, and the neighbor.  The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field.

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

Sunday
July 23

Salt and Light

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Corinthians 2:1-12

Matthew 5:13-16

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The point of salt is to be salty.  We are the salt of the earth.

The point of light is to shine. We are the light of the world.

The point of life is to love. We are alive.

 

I.[1]

Jane was a traveler, and as happens to travelers from time to time, one day she found herself in a new city—the City of Everywhere.  Perhaps you’ve been there.

Jane had not, but being a city girl at heart, having grown up in the land of the bean and the cod, she was open to the experience.

After all, the City of Everywhere was beautiful; the streets were clean, the architecture was appealing, and the people were so friendly.  There was just one thing, one tiny detail that, as Jane walked down the street, she thought was a little strange.

You see, no one, not a single person that she passed was wearing shoes.

Strange, Jane thought, as she ducked into a coffee shop.

As she was waiting for her iced latte, looking around at all the shoeless people, her curiosity finally got the better of her and she said to the manager, “Excuse me, manager.  I’m new to your city.  What a wonderful place, the streets are so clean, the architecture so appealing, the people so friendly.  I just have one quick question.  Tell me, why doesn’t anyone wear shoes?”

The manager gave her a knowing smile and offered in a thoughtful voice, “Ah, that’s the question, why don’t we?”

“Right.” Said Jane, “That’s what I’m asking, why don’t you wear any shoes? Don’t you all believe in shoes?”

“Believe in shoes?!” said the manager, “Of course, we believe in shoes, that’s the first article of our creed—shoe wearing. Oh, think of the suffering shoes prevent; think of the sores, the splinters, the stubs avoided by those wonders of wonders—shoes.”

Jane, a little freaked out, smiled and nodded her head and quietly left the coffee shop. (With her iced latte of course.) As she walked down the street, she was in such a state of consternation that she almost missed the beautiful stone building in front of her.

It had a spire that reached to the sky and colorful glass windows with pictures in them. As she was staring at it, an old man said to her, “Beautiful isn’t it?”  “Yes,” said Jane, “What is it?”

“This?” said the man pointing to the beautiful building, “Ah, this is our pride and joy. This is our shoe manufacturing establishment.”

Surprised, Jane responded, “You mean you make shoes there?”

“No, no, no,” laughed the man, “don’t be silly. No, this is where we talk about making shoes.  We have a staff of people we pay to speak to us each week about shoe wearing.  We broadcast the message live on the radio for thousands to hear and there are moments when the speakers are so persuasive about shoe-wearing that people weep and commit to wearing shoes in the week ahead.”

Sneaking a peak at his feet, Jane asked the man, “You go here?”

“Every week!” said the man, “and even when I miss I tune in on the radio or listen to the podcast or read the blogpost later in the week.”

“Well, why don’t you wear shoes, then?”  said Jane.

The man, looking her in the eye, nodded with a knowing smile, “Ahhh, that’s the question, why don’t I?”

Just then, over the man’s shoulder, Jane noticed a small cobbler’s shop across the street.  She excused herself to the older man and crossed the street into the shop. Though the sign said “open,” there was not a single customer there. Interrupting the cobbler as he was putting the finishing touches on a beautiful pair of shoes.  Jane asked the cobbler, “Why is your shop empty?”

The cobbler responded, “As you can see, I have plenty of shoes, but people around here just want to talk about shoes. No one actually wears them.”

Then Jane had an idea. Surprising the cobbler, Jane bought as many pairs as she could carry and ran across the street to the man she had just left and said to him, “Sir, good news, I have shoes for you.  They are different shapes and sizes, but surely there is a pair that fits you?  Isn’t there?”

The man, looked down at the shoes and then up at Jane, then back down at the shoes and back up at Jane and his faced turned a little crimson, “Thank you miss, that’s very kind, but you see, it’s just not done.”

Said an exasperated Jane, “Why don’t you wear shoes?”

Said the man, “That’s the question, Why don’t we?”

And as Jane traveled back from The City of Everywhere to here, that question resonated in her mind, “Why don’t we, why don’t we, why don’t we?”

 

II.

Jesus was standing on a hill giving the sermon of his life before he gave his life as the sermon.

He began poetically, perhaps you’ve heard it, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek,” and so on and so forth.

And then, according to Matthew, he got to the meat of the sermon…or at least the seasoning.

Looking at the disciples, he said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

Now if we’re honest, that’s sort of a weird thing to say, but setting the strangeness aside for a moment, we should recognize what he was doing.

He was pausing in the middle of the sermon at the beginning of his ministry, to remind the people gathered around him of who they were, of why they were important.

“You are the salt of the earth.”

To be clear, he was not speaking literally, he was speaking theologically.

He was saying to the disciples and in turn to us that we are people of worth.  By virtue of our very being we have worth.

Not because of the things we do, but because of who we are.

And sometimes, as we know, we could use the reminder.

After all, we live in a world that from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed tries to convince us that we are not enough. That who we are is not enough. That our worth comes from how we look or who we know or who knows us.

But friends, it’s not true.

We are more than our tweets, more than our Facebook or Instagram likes. We are more than the way the world perceives us, more than our jobs, our grades, our bodies.

We are the salt of the earth.  In other words, we matter not because of the things we do, but because of who we are.

And for those who may have forgotten between last week and this one, let me say it again, you are as I am a child of God.

But accepting that, friends, is only the first step.  We also have to live like it matters.

Jesus continues, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste (its saltiness) how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

In other words, friends, the point, the entire point of salt is to be salty.

We know from our own experience that when we lose our proverbial saltiness, when we forget who we are in the eyes of God, when we try and find our worth in those fleeting things of life, money, sex, accomplishment, it can feel like the world is walking all over us.

The good news is that even then, we have worth.

You see, not only was salt an important preservative of the ancient world and a form of currency, (hence something not being worth its salt), it was also frequently used as a leveling agent for the most common fuel for outdoor fires of the time: manure.

That’s right: manure.  Salt helped manure patties to burn longer, hotter, and more evenly, and then, when they were done, the solid charred remains were used on roads to help absorb mud.

In other words, they were literally trampled upon…and still had worth.

And while that doesn’t sound particularly pleasant, think for a moment about what it would mean for us to be leveling agents for the world.  What would it mean if we took seriously the call not only to preserve the message that Jesus was sharing—to not only talk about loving—but to be the agents who helped spread that message evenly. To all. To spread it in such a way that long after we are gone, the love we shared made the path a little easier for those who come after us.

Or said another way, friends, what would it mean if we wore the shoes we talked so much about?

Let’s be honest, Christians haven’t always done this well…if at all.

When was the last time Christians made the news for their love? Think of the last year alone and all of the fear of refugees, of immigrants, of our Muslim brothers and sisters.  What has been the Christian voice?

The entirety of the Christian faith is predicated on the notion that we are to welcome the stranger in our midst—to love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s not a part of our faith, it is our faith.   And yet, when our voice is needed, we’ve been silent at best, and complicit at worst.

Friends, salt is meant to be salty.  We are the salt of the earth.

But just in case the salt metaphor is not working, Matthew has Jesus switch to a new one…light, though the point is the same.  He says, “A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on a lampstand so that it may give light to all in the house.” In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.
Do you hear?  Let your light shine before others.

The point of light is to shine.

So, in case we’ve missed it, here’s the point—we are not people who get together to just talk about light, we are people who shine it. We are not people who talk about shoes, we wear them.  Or, to drop the metaphors for a moment, we don’t just talk about life, we live it…and the only way to do that is through love.

I give you a new command, love one another.

Sometimes we can get really cynical about this whole faith thing. We look at it and shake our heads and think, this is all a bunch of manure.  And most of the time, we’re right.

The truth is, our faith is only as good as the people willing to live like it matters.

We have spent too long convincing ourselves that our faith is about what happens when we die.  But the opposite is true…it’s about what happens when we live, not at death, but right now.

And the only way to life is through love.

Friends, what is it in your life that is worth dying for?  Isn’t it worth living for as well?
As Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive then go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

And if changing the world seems too hard, let’s start with the part we have some control over—ourselves…our interactions with each another.  If we can make those relationships a little more loving, if we can practice forgiveness and grace and compassion in those, if we can make a little kingdom of heaven here, then there just might be hope for The Cities of Everywhere.

And if there comes a time in our travels through life when we look in the mirror and discover that we don’t love as we should, then we owe it to ourselves to ask the hard question: Why don’t we?  Why don’t we?  Why don’t we?

-The Reverend Doctor Stephen M Cady II, Senior Minister from Asbury First United Methodist Church in Rochester, New York.


[1] This allegory is based on “The City of Everywhere” by Hugh Price Hughes which I first discovered in the writings of Howard Thurman.

Sunday
July 16

Among You (Us)

By Marsh Chapel

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Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Romans 7:15-25a

Luke 17:20-21

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The kingdom of God is among us.

Many years ago, there was a man who worked in a pottery factory—a large man, a quiet man… Let’s call him Joe.[1]

Like so many of us, every day, Joe came to work, kept his head down, did his job to the best of his ability and then went home.

Now, as happens in most factories, there was always something extraneous to the process that was left over at the end of the day; nothing much: a piece of glass, a bit of ribbon, a shard of broken pottery—you know, trash—the result of human error along the production line.

Most of those items would be discarded, thrown away, sent to a landfill somewhere never to be seen again, but not all of them.

You see, before he left for the day, much to the bemusement of his coworkers, Joe went around silently sifting through those extraneous pieces, those scraps of the industrial process, the things that everyone else had thrown away. He would search until he found at least a couple of items to add to what most considered a pile of junk now occupying a rather comical portion of his locker.

But the snickers from his coworkers didn’t stop Joe.

No, every day, either staying late or coming in early, Joe found some time to do something with that junk. Every day Joe E worked with those scraps to make something new, not always large or complex or artful, but new so that he always had something colorful or unique to bring home.

You see, Joe had a son at home whom he knew from his birth would never leave his bed.  His “wee lad,” as he called him, spent each day in his small bed in his small room in a small house.  And large Joe, though he couldn’t always find ways to express it with words, loved his “wee lad” more than anything in this broken world.  And though it meant a little extra time at work, he brought something home every day that he knew, if only for a moment, would make his son’s face light up.

Every day he pulled together scraps that others had discarded in the name of love.

The kingdom of God is among us.

Once, according to Luke, some Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God was coming. We don’t have much context for the question in Luke’s Gospel, we’re just told that once—that is, at some point—they asked it.

And if we’re honest, we get it.  After all, it’s a question we’ve asked from time to time as well.  If not always in those words.

Perhaps some of us have done so this week. As we look around at the political mess we find ourselves in, as we get increasingly terrifying news alerts on our phones, as we witness the saber rattling our leaders, as we learn of the ice caps breaking apart, of meetings with Russian lawyers, of health care without the care, of nobel peace prize winning dissidents dying in prison, it might be only natural to pause and ask ourselves…is this the end? Is the kingdom of God finally upon us?

The Pharisees had similar question.  They were concerned with timing.  Who knows? Maybe they wanted to get invitations out in time for the party.  More likely, they wanted to prepare themselves for the end; for that time when God would come in final victory and their hard work would be rewarded.

Now to be fair, Luke, like Matthew and Mark, also seemed to believe that the Kingdom of God was imminent; as each of those gospel writers said in their own way, they believed that not a generation would pass before the Kingdom would be upon them; hopeful words for those first century Christians to whom they writing.

Those early Christians must have heard these gospels and taken comfort that the kingdom of God was right around the corner, that the uncertainty and alienation and exclusion of their present age would soon pass…that they needed only to bide their time.

But, as we know, Luke, like Matthew and Mark, was wrong.   John, writing at least a generation later, had to deal with their misunderstanding in his gospel, but friends, no matter how we dice it, the kingdom of God didn’t come about within a generation. Nor, as it turns out, in the hundreds of generations since.  The truth is, we’re still waiting for that uncertainty and alienation and exclusion to pass.

In other words, the gospel writers were wrong.

Now, on the one hand, it’s comforting to know that even the gospel writers could be wrong every once in a while…after all, we know the feeling.  On the other, though, it’s a little disconcerting.

Here, they had been waiting for something to happen, longing for something to happen, promised that something would happen, and then, it didn’t.

And now we, nearly 2000 years later, are left to ask, “Why?”  Another question with which we have more than a passing familiarity. Why?

Fortunately, we get by with a little help from our friends.

In our case today, we receive some help from the Gospel of Luke itself; from a quirky little passage that speaks about the Kingdom of God in such a different way than the rest of the gospel that its authenticity to Luke has been questioned.

You see in our passage today, when the Pharisees ask Jesus when the kingdom of God is coming he surprises them by saying, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “look, here it is,” or “there is it!” for, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

Do you hear? Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is among you,” or as might better be translated, “within you.”  The Kingdom of God is among us.

That changes some things, doesn’t it?  At the very least, it shifts our attention from the sky to the mirror.  Not that that makes it easier, it doesn’t, but it does make sense.  It makes sense to us that the Kingdom of God is not something that happens to us, but rather something that we take part in.  It’s not passive, but active.

Friends, the Kingdom of God is not some apocalyptic vision about the end of the world, but rather a hope for a world in which we all finally and fully live as God commands.

And fortunately, we know the gospel writers didn’t get that part wrong.  We have the rest of Scripture and our own experience to affirm it: in the end, we know how we are called to live.  We know that as a people of faith we are really only called to do two things: to love God and to love our neighbor.  Or said more succinctly we are called to love. Full stop.

“I give you a new command, that you love one another.”

For some of us, that means staying a little late at the factory.

For some of us, it means letting go of a broken relationship, or workplace, or heart.

For some of us, it means changing the way we spend our time or money or life.

The truth is, we don’t love in the abstract, we love in the concrete.  Human to human, person to person, heart to heart.

Friends, the kingdom of God is among us and is revealed one relationship at a time.

The good news is that we don’t have to figure it out on our own.  That’s why we’re here, that’s why we’ve tuned in this morning, isn’t it?   To get a little help from our friends?

The purpose of the church universal is to help one another find better and fuller ways to love.  And though we’ve made it more complicated and at times missed the point entirely, that’s really the only purpose we have.

Friends, we are called to keep reminding each other that each person we encounter is someone of worth, a child of the same God.

All of us, young and old, black and white, gay and straight, male and female, rich and poor, broken and whole.  All of us are God’s children, which among other things means that we have an awfully big family to care for.

It means we have an awfully strange family to care for.

It means that we collect the scraps that everyone else thinks of as trash.

But we don’t do it alone.  And as we know from hard experience, we can do an awful lot if we know we don’t have to do it alone.

As Howard Thurman said, we have each, by the grace of God, been given a crown to grow into…a crown which we did nothing to earn and, thank God, can do nothing to take away. A crown of grace which means that whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not, the kingdom of God is within us.

Friends, Luke believed that the Kingdom of God was coming soon. He believed that it would not be long before the barriers that we use to divide ourselves, the walls that we build would finally and fully be taken down.  After all, it’s hard to love your neighbor through a wall.

Perhaps he was more optimistic than he should have been, but the good news, friends, is that the Kingdom of God is just as close today as it was when Luke was writing.

The kingdom of God is not a place.  It’s our hope for a world in which we each recognize the crown we have been given and then help others to do the same.

Do you hear? The kingdom of God is among us.

And sometimes it only takes one act of love to change this broken world.

Nobody quite knows how Joe’s co-workers found out about his “wee lad,”—no one ever spoke about it.

Nevertheless, one by one, the other pottery workers began to collect scraps of their own.  And soon, a couple times a week, Joe would return to his locker to find a little cup with wheels or a painted piece of scrap, or an engraving in wood, and he understood.

Over the next few months, the culture of the factory began to change.  The workers were said to grow quiet, becoming gentle and kind, swearing less frequently, even if not altogether.  Then, at some point they noticed the increasingly weary look on Joe’s face and knew that the inevitable shadow was drawing nearer.

They began to do a piece for him every day and put it on a sanded plank to dry so that he could come in later or go home earlier.

And so it was that when the funeral bell tolled and that small boy finally left that small house in a small procession, there stood a hundred stalwart workers from the pottery with clean clothes on, having taken the day off for the privilege of walking alongside Joe and the “wee lad” that not one had ever seen in life.

Do you see? They couldn’t take away Joe’s pain—that’s a part of love.  But in the end, they could remind him that he was not alone.

Friends, neither are we.

The kingdom of God is among us…let’s not leave each other waiting.

-The Rev. Dr. Stephen M. Cady II, Senior Minister from Asbury First United Methodist Church in Rochester, New York.


[1] This is my adaptation of a story found in Howard Thurman’s The Growing Edge.

Sunday
July 9

Imagination and Discipleship

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

Romans 7:15-25a

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Click here to listen to the meditations only

Upon this summer Sunday, let us meditate together on imagination, and its influence in discipleship.  Our gospel turns to the playful imagination of children in the marketplace.  St. Paul wrote in a similar way to his Corinthian congregation:

One

19 For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.

20 Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?

21 For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.

22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling-block, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

24 But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

26 For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called:

27 But 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;

Discipleship requires more than wisdom alone.  The walk of faith evokes and involves imagination, the free play of insight, the province of children and saints.

Two

What a gift are the parables of Jesus!  He taught them in parables, says the Scripture, and without a parable he taught not one thing.  Here, in a story form, is the same sentiment just remembered from Paul, God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.

Jesus stands in the marketplace.  He sees two warring groups of children.  All community is endless contention and intractable difference.  One group wants to play a game called ‘weddings’:  we have our pipes, we are ready to dance, come and join us, and let us play the game of weddings.  Another group wants to play a game called ‘funerals’:  we have our tears, our wailing, our gathered mourning clothes and forms, come and join us and let us play the game of funerals.  One game for the enjoyment of life preferred by Jesus himself, one game for the dour, self-discipline for life, preferred by John the Baptist.  Come and join!  

Yet neither group will give way.  Groups, as Reinhold Niebuhr taught us in Moral Man and Immoral Society, have a hard time changing direction, or giving way, or forgiving, or summoning an imagination ready for discipleship.  That requires a childlike heart.  It requires an imagination soaked discipleship. It requires the person whom you are meant to become.

Did you ever know and love somebody who was always a bit on edge?  I mean a beautiful person with a heart of gold, who was run raw by the gone-wrongness of life?  This can be a rough world for a sensitive soul.  Someone who has an unquenchable passion for getting things right and for knowing when things are wrong.  A little of that can go a long way.  If your very hunger is for what establishes the soul, you can sometimes go hungry.

Imagine with her eyes:  Every child in the community was attending a safe, well-lit, quiet school, where virtually all could read at the sixth grade level by the time they finished the sixth grade level.  Every sick person in the community had ample medical care, most of it preventive, and all of it shot through with a heavenly infusion of time, talent and money.  Every person of color in the community felt confident entering the public spaces—theaters, churches, stadiums, stores—in every corner of the community. Every man was free to be a man.  And every woman was free to be a woman.  Every person is seen and heard as a real human being.

Three

Here at University, we are blessed with intelligence, youth, freedom, and reason.  

We want to be careful, and caring, so we pause here.  We educators sometimes  tend to leave civil society to the rest of society. We have much freedom, but how we choose to use it, in relation to the rest of community and society, is another matter. We after all have that next paper to write, 50 pages of small print not including footnotes, titled with some version of the title, ‘Obscurity Squared’.  To do that, one needs a capacity to spend 12 hours a day alone in a library or in front of a computer screen.  To do that, to write that series of scholarly papers become books become resume become tenure become professor, can risk leaving aside, if we are not careful, or leaving to others, if we are not careful, the imaginative stewardship of forms of civil society.  Girl Scout cookies.  Umpire work for the Little League.  Pinewood derby leadership.  A seat on the PTA.  Sunday worship.  Neighborhood watch.  Refugee resettlement work.  These we have to leave in the hands of others, or at least we think we do, those basic cultural building blocks that rest on a willingness to sit quietly in dull meetings, hoping against hope for the blessed refrain, ‘I guess we’re done for tonight’.  In civil society we have the chance to influence others, and to be influenced among others, in lasting, personal ways.  You want to speak to others, to convince others, to educate—good. But.  You cannot speak to others until or unless you speak for others.  To be speak to requires first to speak for.  Others will not hear or heed you, and should not, in your speech to them, if they do not, with utter confidence, feel, feel, that you speak for them as well.  To speak for, you have to be with.  At breakfast.  Playing golf.  In book club. In church.  At the YMCA.  Then, only then, will you enough funds in the relational bank when you need to withdraw some to say something that may then be audible. If you want people in Wisconsin to hear you, candidate, you have to go and be with people in Wisconsin.  If you want people to hear you, preacher, you have to go and be with people, in visitation, on their turf.  If you want to speak to others, educators, you will have to find a way to speak for others, not just to others.  This is the whole genius of American civil society, from the time of De Tocqueville.   Whether we will find, in the humiliations of an era whose leadership is shredding inherited forms of civil society on an hourly basis, the humility to go out and suffer with and for others, over the better part of the next decade, in order then to speak, is an unanswered question.  To get to an answer we may just need some imagination in our discipleship.

Four

Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.  Our Gospel lures us and lures our imagination forward, for discipleship.  Have we yet learned the lesson that what one means—by an act, a word, a statement, a vote, say—is not all that such an act means?  We have experienced this lesson this year. The lesson, that is, that what you in your heart meant by an act, a word, a statement—a vote, is not in fact the limit of what that act, word, statement or vote meant:  in fact it is a small part, the greater part of the meaning being found in the effect, the impact, the historical influence of the deed. Wisdom is vindicated, known, in her deeds. The meaning of a text is found in the future it opens, the future it imagines, the future it creates. (Ray Hart). So too, the meaning of an act, a word, a statement, a vote, say, is found in the future, bright or dark, which it creates.  What you meant is not what it means.  For that, you have to listen to those harmed, or helped, by it.  Meaning is social, not individual, hence our use of words, our developed language, our investment in culture, our life in community.  You may have meant it one way, but its meaning is found along another.  Such hard, tragic lessons, to have to learn and re-learn.

Jesus is our beacon not our boundary.  Imagination is a dimension of discipleship that is waxing not waning, needed not superfluous, crucial not peripheral.  Our passages today, Genesis, Psalms, and Romans, draw our imaginations to forms of authority, and our engagement with them.  In Genesis, the authority in ancestry.  In Psalms, the authority in government.  In Romans, the authority in conscience.  In all these, the writers struggle to imagine a way forward, following the light of the beacon across the challenge of the boundary.

Five

Pause and meditate a little this summer on your own enjoyment of play. Our esteemed colleague and beloved mentor, now of blessed memory, Peter Berger did so, with imagination for discipleship, years ago in his little book, A Rumor of Angels.  1. I see grown men enthralled on a green field following a wee little white ball, which seems to have a mind of its own, for three or four hours in the hot sun.  2. I see grown women shopping together without any particular need, but immersed, self-forgetful, in the process of purchasing, God knows what.  3.I see emerging adults fixed and fixated, days on end, in the World of Warcraft. 4.Can you remember playing bridge in college all night long, to the detriment of your zoology grade?  Peter Berger: A. In playing, one steps out of one time into another…When adults play with genuine joy, they momentarily regain the deathlessness of childhood.  The experience of joyful play is not something that must be sought on some mystical margin of existence.  It can readily be found in the reality of ordinary life…The religious justification of the experience can be achieved only in an act of faith…B. This faith is inductive—it does not rest on a mysterious revelation, but rather on what we experience in our common, ordinary lives…Religion is the final vindication of childhood and of joy, and of all gestures that replicate these.  One said: “I played basketball today, on the intramural team—it was awesome.”  Talk about it a bit, parents and children.

Six

Imagination in discipleship forms a wisdom vindicated, justified by her deeds.  (Luke has changed the ending to ‘justified by all her children’—maybe an even closer memory to the marrow of imagination.)

Hear again the imaginative wisdom of Boston University’s own late personalist philosopher, Erazim Kohak, The Embers and The Stars, with ten of whose epigrams we conclude, this summer morning, to kindle the imagination:

‘We shall dig again the wells of our Fathers.’

‘Humans grow angry so easily, so heedlessly venting their anger at those nearest and most vulnerable, needlessly, wantonly injuring what is most precious and most fragile’.

‘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.’

‘There is self-discovery in remembrance.’

‘We have a sense of history.  But we have lost a sense of eternity.’

‘The authentic relation between beings is the personal encounter of mutual’ respect.  208

‘Most of the time we possess and covet far more than we can care for and cherish.’ 212

‘Generosity personalizes as greed depersonalizes.’

‘We need to rediscover ourselves as persons, not as need gratifying organisms.’ 215

‘The chief task of philosophy is to write footnotes to the text of experience’ 219

But to what shall I compare this generation?  It is like children sitting  in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’…Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

Sunday
July 2

The Discipleship of the Lost

By Marsh Chapel

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Genesis 22:1-14

Romans 6:12-23

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May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock, and our redeemer. Amen.

We journey together in these summer months, we who gather along the banks of the Charles, whether near or afar. We journey along with friends and with guests during our annual summer preacher series at Marsh Chapel. We journey, this summer, charting new directions in discipleship.

Over the course of this liturgical year, Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary, we have been journeying with Matthew, who is the leftmost figure in our Altarpiece here at Marsh Chapel, depicting Jesus and the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. For the past three weeks, we have abided for a time in the tenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel as Jesus calls and sends out the twelve disciples. We would do well to remember how that sending begins in verses five and six: “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Most of the rest of the tenth chapter delineates just how fraught their mission will be, replete with persecution, rejection, and division.

At last, we come, this week, to the final three verses of the chapter and the conclusion of Jesus’ mandate in mission to the disciples. At last, things are beginning to look a bit brighter. At last, the disciples are encouraged to gird up their loins and persevere for they will receive the just rewards of the righteous if they do. And so, Jesus declares, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” In sum, good things come to those who persist.

And so, we pick ourselves up, and dust ourselves off, emboldened and encouraged by Jesus’ words of instruction. Off we go, continuing our journey. Now wait a minute, I forgot, where was it you said we were to go again, Jesus? “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Israel. Right. Off we go.

Now wait just a second. WE are of the house of Israel. WE descend from the house and family of Jacob. And what’s more, SO DO YOU, JESUS! Well, isn’t this a fine “how do you do!?” This is no journey to see the sites, to get out in the world, to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. Jesus is telling us to go home!

Indeed, Jesus finds it easier to find faithfulness outside of Israel than within. Just back in chapter eight, we recall that “When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralysed, in terrible distress.’ And he said to him, ‘I will come and cure him.’ The centurion answered, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.’ When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (8: 5-8; 10-12).

“Many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” We remember that God made covenant with Abram, who was renamed Abraham, that his descendants would become nations, including both of his sons, Isaac, who he almost sacrificed, and Ishmael who he sent away and whose nation was the harbinger of Islam. But it was Isaac’s son Jacob, who was renamed Israel, whose tribe would become lost so that Jesus must send the disciples to find them. Indeed, “in no one in Israel have I found such faith,” and “the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

It would be all too easy, and over the course of Christian history we have proven all too susceptible to making this finding of a lack of faith in Israel a justification for antisemitism. To be sure, the community of the Gospel of Matthew was in the midst of a wrenching divorce within synagogues between those who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and those who did not. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the moral of this story is to write off those who did not understand Jesus to be the Messiah. The moral of the story, instead, is that to learn what it means to be faithful, that is, what it means to be a disciple, and thus what we should be teaching and mentoring each other to become, we may have to look outside of our own community, as Jesus did here in the eighth chapter, and again in the fifteenth:

“Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” (15: 22-28).

This is not a matter of those outside of Israel being right and those within being wrong. This question as to proper faithfulness and discipleship in Matthew is not antisemitism. Just as Jesus found a Roman centurion and a Canaanite woman to be faithful by contrast with Israel, so too he found his Israelite disciples to be faithful by contrast with his natural family in the twelfth chapter: “While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (12: 46-50).

So, you want to be a disciple of Jesus, do you? Go home! Go home. Go home to the lost sheep of Israel, that is, go home to the church, your church, your tribe, and your nation, and testify to the faithfulness you have encountered on the highways and byways of life. Go home to your brothers and your sisters and your mother, and tell them of those from the east and from the west whom you expect to meet at the banquet table of heaven.

My, my, my, you may be thinking, that does sound hard. Indeed, there is a great deal more at stake in providing welcome, in providing hospitality, whether to a prophet, or to a righteous person, or to a little one, than merely providing food, and drink, and shelter. After all, to welcome one of them is to welcome Jesus is to welcome God.

Consider, then, the sermon preached on Palm Sunday in 1959 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama by the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. He took as his sermon texts two passages from the Gospel of John: “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold” (10:16) and “Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that believeth on me, the works that I do, shall he do also. And greater works than these shall he do because I go unto my Father” (14:12). Doctor King applied both of these verses to Gandhi, and in doing so made two significant moves. The first is to simultaneously acknowledge the religious otherness of Gandhi and to adopt that very otherness of Gandhi’s life, practice, thought, and person into the fold of God. King argues that Gandhi is a Christian not by being a Christian but by being a Hindu, and thus not of this fold. This is to say that it is by virtue of Gandhi’s Hinduism that he belongs to King’s God.

The second move is even more startling, especially since it arrives in a sermon on Palm Sunday, third only in importance on the Christian liturgical calendar to Christmas and Easter. The appellation of the second text signals that Doctor King believed that in his life Gandhi had achieved greater things than Jesus. To be sure, by noting that Jesus predicted this, King is safeguarding the sanctity of the Christian narrative. Nevertheless, the greatest accomplishment of Jesus according to the Christian narrative is nothing less than the salvation of the world. It is that very Christian narrative, then, that Doctor King employs to elevate the significance of Gandhi’s life to the level of soteriological efficacy. This is a shocking move for any Christian preacher to make, even one trained at the Boston University School of Theology.

Doctor King came north via Morehouse College in Atlanta and Crozier Divinity School in Philadelphia to take his PhD in systematic theology at Boston University. It was on that journey that he learned about Gandhi, not least from the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman here at Marsh Chapel. Then, he went home. He went home to the south. He went home to Atlanta and to Selma and to Montgomery and he testified to the faithfulness he had encountered on the way.

And what did Gandhi’s faithfulness consist in, you may be wondering? The faithfulness of Gandhi may best be summed up in a word: Satyagraha, loosely translated, insistence on or holding fast to truth. Satyagraha was the name Gandhi gave to his philosophy of nonviolent resistance. It was also the name he gave to the ashram he founded. Of the first half of the term, satya, Gandhi says, “The word Satya (Truth) is derived from Sat, which means ‘being.’ Nothing is or exists in reality except Truth. That is why Sat or Truth is perhaps the most important name of God. In fact it is more correct to say that Truth is God, than to say that God is Truth. But as we cannot do without a ruler or a general, names of God such as ‘King of Kings’ or ‘the Almighty’ are and will remain generally current. On deeper thinking, however, it will be realized, that Sat or Satya is the only correct and fully significant name for God.” (M. K. Gandhi.  Non-Violent Resistance. New York: Schocken Books, 1951. 38.)

A testament to truth we may also find yet further east, in China. Consider then the words of the scholar Xunzi of the third century BCE: “If a man has attained perfection of truthfulness, he will have no other concern than to uphold the principle of humanity and to behave with justice. If with truthfulness of mind he upholds the principle of humanity, it will be given form. Having been given form, it becomes intelligible. Having become intelligible, it can produce transmutation. If with truthfulness of mind he behaves with justice, it will accord with natural order. According with natural order, it will become clear. Having become clear, it can produce transformation. To cause transmutation and transformation to flourish in succession is called the ‘Power of Nature.’” (John Knoblock, Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works. Vol. 1. Stanford University Press, 1988. 177-78).

Truth is at the root of the power of nature. Truth is the only correct and fully significant name for God. “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Could the will of God be anything other than truth? Faithfulness. Discipleship. “Many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” Faithfulness. Discipleship.

Go home! Go home. Go home to the lost sheep of Israel. Go home to the church, your church. Go home to your tribe, and your nation. Go home and testify to the faithfulness you have encountered on the highways and byways of life. Go home and witness to the discipleship of the Roman and the Canaanite and the Hindu and the Ru. Go home to your brothers and your sisters and your mother, and tell them of those from the east and from the west whom you expect to meet at the banquet table of heaven. Amen.

– Brother Lawrence A. Whitney, LC†, University Chaplain for Community Life