Archive for October, 2017

A Mighty Fortress

Sunday, October 29th, 2017

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1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8

Matthew 22: 34-46

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Life

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing. Our shelter He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.

The author of our first and famous hymn this morning, Martin Luther, was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. His father was a miner of some affluence, who wanted his son to become a lawyer, in part to help the growing family business. Martin disappointed his father, and became a monk, in part due to a frightening experience in a fierce thunderstorm in 1505. Terrified, he promised if he survived to enter the monastery. His love of the Scripture became the center of his teaching work, his ministerial vocation, and his spiritual existence. In the Bible he found what he did not find in the church of his time, in the religious practice of his time, and in his time. He found therein, truth. Once dwelling therein, Luther became a Scriptural genius, learning the biblical languages, lecturing on the Psalms, mastering especially the New Testament and particularly the letters of Paul. Were he to return from the dead and preach here at Marsh Chapel, he might well take as his theme, as last week, ‘What a Friend We Have in Paul’. Or, ‘Luther on Prayer’, as next week. Or, ‘Luther and Hymnody’, as with Dr. Christopher Brown the following week.

Luther’s disputations began well within the church of his day, and were at first understood by all as scholarly differences typical for religious contest. But, as Raymond Brown once told us, ‘all reformations go far beyond what the reformer did originally intend’. In 1517, on All Hallows Eve, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, attacking the practice of indulgences, and setting the authority of the Bible over against the authority of the church. In various tribunal settings, Luther, with a little help from his friends, affirmed the authority of Scripture, and attacked the authority of the Church. Over the next three years, his writing and teaching and publication and preaching, with the help of the newly developed printing press, quickly raised up a storm of controversy. In 1520 he published three magisterial treatises, and by 1521 he was excommunicated. He defended himself at the Diet of Worms in 1521 saying, ‘Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me’.

Over the next two decades, again with much support and assistance from others, out of his voice and writing emerged the Lutheran Church, the Protestant Reformation, and the concomitant splintering of the Christian church’s visible unity, which fracture has not been healed to this day. In 1525, he married a former nun, Katie Von Bora, and together they had six children. He died in 1846 in the very town in which he had been born.   He preached, taught, lived, trusted and extolled the gift of faith. In that way, oddly enough, he was like, akin to, Thomas Merton, whom we shall hear from in Lent.

So, James Finley, ‘Merton once told me to quit trying so hard in prayer. He said, ‘How does an apple ripen? It sits in the sun.’ A small green apple cannot ripen in one night by tightening all its muscles, squinting its eyes and tightening its jaw in order to find itself the next morning miraculously large, red, ripe, and juicy beside its small green counterparts. Like the birth of a baby or the opening of a rose, the birth of the true self takes place in God’s time. We must wait for God, we must be awake; we must trust in his hidden action within us.’

So, J Louis Martyn, “All religions are attempts to know God; none is the event of being known by God…God’s graceful election of us by his rectifying and non-religious invasion of the cosmos in Christ is the subject of the whole letter.” (Martyn, Galatians, 4:9).

Thought

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing. Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing.

 Properly to remember Martin Luther, in the space of a 20-minute teaching sermon, here with emphasis on his thought, we shall need to be brutally concise. We focus here on one year alone, 1520, and three fundamental documents from that cornucopia year, which, to some measure, encompass the broad range of Luther’s theological perspective. Together these three ‘made the breach with Rome irreparable, and established the foundations of what would eventually become a new church’ (with thanks to Dr. Lyndal Roper, now and later, 133).

The first is the essay, To the Christian Nobility of the Church. We should remember that Luther’s reformation coincided with the emergence of the printing press. 4,000 copies of Nobility were sold as soon as they came off the press, August 1520. It was addressed in German to lay people, and argued that since the church itself had been unable to reform itself, it fell to the laity to do so. The reform promoted here is heavily weighted on financial reform. Luther charged the church with avarice, and charged the nobility with the task of addressing that avarice, something the nobles had every interest in doing. Luther attacked usury. He attacked complex financial manipulations. He attacked the control of much money by few people. ‘The genius of the tract was to combine the economic grievances about the Church’s financial affairs with the religious issue of the authority of Scripture’ (Roper, 149) (which Luther averred overrode spiritual law, the Church’s teaching authority, and the Councils called by Popes.). Luther set fire to the cult of saints, to religious orders, to masses in memory of the dead, to pilgrimages, and to monastic vows, including his own—all on the basis of economics and Scripture. Most striking, to our ears, is the full sympathy Luther has for priests and religious who have fallen in love and fallen into another’s arms. Putting them together and forbidding sex ‘like putting straw and fire together, and forbidding them to smoke or burn’ (Roper, 150). Only the nobility, only the lay princes, said Luther, had the power to do all this, and he charged them to do it. Sola Gratia!

The second is the treatise, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. This came out that year in October, after he had been threatened with excommunication. The title, in which is his whole argument, refers to the children of Israel (the real church) held captive in a foreign land, by an alien power, for a sordid purpose (the church of Rome). Herein Luther trimmed the list of sacraments from 7 to 2, protecting only baptism and eucharist, on the basis of Scripture. Herein Luther rejected an ‘Aristotelian’ understanding of the Mass—one of accidents and essence—but emphasizing and retaining a full, actual Presence in the Eucharist. He hold strongly and fully to the External Word, in the actual preaching of the Gospel, in actual presence in the Sacrament, and in the actual utterance of Absolution. All these three we regularly practice here, month by month. “The sacraments are not fulfilled when they are taking place, but when they are being believed” (Roper, 152). And faith, then is all. It is the belief that makes the sacrament, not vice versa. “Human beings could not make themselves perfect and win acceptance with God because of their good deeds—they had to accept their sinfulness and recognize that God in his justice accepts sinners. Thus they were at one and the same time sinners and saved” (Roper, 154). At the beginning of the service every Sunday, a prayer of confession and a word of absolution. Sola Fide!

The third tractate is The Freedom of the Christian. If you are thinking to read just one Lutheran essay, this is the one to choose this week. Written in November of 1520, this is a 30-point sermon. See how lucky you are to have to endure only 3 points a week! A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all. So the writing begins, and in the same manner ends, and argues through and through. So beautiful, so dialectical, so paradoxical, so realistic, so Scriptural—so Lutheran! It is the inner person who finds faith. For every human act, thought, deed, presentiment is colored by sin, tainted with pride, sloth, falsehood, superstition, idolatry, hypocrisy—creatureliness.  The Bible teaches us about sin. The Bible teaches us about faith. It is the Bible, alone, that holds the full authority to do this. ‘Hence all of us who believe in Christ are priests and kings in Christ, as 1 Peter says’ (Roper, 145). Sola Scriptura!

For his trouble, Luther was excommunicated in December of 1520.

Luther’s teaching is often and rightly summarized thus: Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura. 

Influence 

And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we shall not fear for God has willed His truth to triumph through us. 

Luther’s influence shapes our understandings of power, preaching and prophecy.

Power. Luther reminds us of the relativity of all human ideals. Luther distrusted concentrated power, as M Gellhorn put it this year, I mistrust power for myself and everyone else, especially power bestowed by race, creed or color. Luther trusted preaching, but not those ‘whose heads were clear enough but who never cleared their throats’ (NYR 10/17). Luther respected but mistrusted reason alone: do you want to know better or do you want to get better? (RAH). Luther agreed with some current psychology, that man can do what he wills but cannot will what he wills. Luther would not be surprised by current political leaders who chose political opportunity over moral judgment. Luther’s voice is heard in that of Paul Tillich, The protestant principle is the restatement of the prophetic principle as an attack against a self-absolutizing and, consequently, demonically distorted church (ST, I, 227). Power.

Preaching. As James Kay has written on preaching: “(The great Lutheran) Bultmann operates with an “I-Thou” model or analogy of revelation as entailing existential commitments. Specifically, he construes the presence of Christ to an individual as analogous to the encounter of a Lover and a Beloved when and where the former says to the latter, “I love you.” The statement, “I love you,” is arguably a promise and simultaneously an existential statement in that it does not simply convey information but a self-involving declaration. In saying, “I love you,” the speaker does not discourse about love but enacts love concretely. This word of love is the love of which it speaks….(His) description of the proclaimed kerygma as “personal address [Anrede], demand [Forderung], and promise [Verheissung]; it is the very act of divine grace.” …Words heard with commissive force “self involve” an agent or subject… “I love you,” also functions as a demand, insofar as it places the Addressee in a new situation, namely, of being the Beloved, which requires a response.” (Forthcoming Kay paper). Preaching.

Prophecy. Here is a business leader, Charles Willie, warning of emptiness: “Those who would master the institutions of our society –a company, a community, or any other collectivity—must decide here and now to give themselves over fully to that which they wish to fully control. By so doing they also will forfeit some of their freedom and flexibility. Is mastery worth the outcome of an imprisoned personality that is efficient, well-organized, but constrained and unspontaneous?”

Here is a scientist, Charles Darwin, of whom a new biography was published recently, naming him the greatest Englishman of his age: “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of a large collection of facts…the loss…is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect and more probably to the moral character.”

Here is a philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, warning about the dangers even in good motives: “the greatest evil comes not from selfishness but from self-lessness in the service of a great cause”.

Here is a Methodist bishop, Violet Fisher, warning us about our present peril: “I ask us to turn over to God for healing the anger and the fear and the desire for dominance that would lead us to harm another human being or to acquiesce in harm done to another”.

And here is a Chapel Dean: We see what we want to see. We minimize hatred and evil. We ignore the lessons of history, to our hurt. We love to be entertained. We neglect worship. We worship identity politics. We need humiliation for humility to be born. We learn only from experience. Doctors we humor, pain we obey.  

   Prophecy.

Coda

It may be, as even later Lutheran history and teaching has noted, that the adjective sola, ‘only’ should bear some scrutiny. Maybe not sola gratia, grace alone, but grace and love together, that can measure and resist, say, the anti-semitism that predates Christianity, that is found in the New Testament (John and even Paul in 1 Thessalonians), and that is tragically found throughout the works of Luther. Maybe not sola fide, faith alone, but faith and works, one being dead without the other as James, actually quite rightly put it. Maybe not sola Scriptura, Scripture alone, but Scripture as formed in tradition, as explicated in reason, and as interpreted in experience. So: gratia and agape, fide and semeia, Scriptura and aletheia.

Elie Wiesel said, ‘He who hears a witness becomes a witness’. He reminds us of who we are at Boston University.

Martin Luther said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me’. He reminds us of who we are in Religious Life.

Thomas Merton said, ‘Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name’. He reminds us who we are as Christian people.

Martin Luther King said, ‘The moral arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice’. He reminds us of who we are at Marsh Chapel.

Come and join us! I mean it. Come and join us for this year in worship, fellowship, and discipleship. Come and join us in this season of remembrance!

Let goods and kindred go

This mortal life also

The body they may kill

God’s truth abideth still

His kingdom is forever

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

What A Friend We Have in Paul

Sunday, October 22nd, 2017

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I Thessalonians 1:1-10

Matthew 22:15-22

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What a friend we have in Paul!

Paul—Apostle

Whose mighty voice has rolled down through the ages bringing us the good news in all its stark simplicity:  Christ the Lord is Risen!

Paul—Apostle

Raised in Tarsus, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, of the Tribe of Benjamin, as to the law a Pharisee, a defender of the traditions of the elders—and so a persecutor of the church.

Paul—Apostle

Who rode to Damascus and on the way was blinded and there heard a voice saying: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”

Paul—Apostle

Who in that blinding encounter with the Risen Lord, gave himself up, pronounced a sort of death sentence over himself, and so died with Christ and walked henceforth in newness of life.

Paul—Apostle

Who believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead and so lived moment by moment thinking, “Who knows what will happen next?”

Paul—Apostle

Who cared for those first few Christians, and worried about them, and grew angry with them, for they so easily lost this vision:  that since God had raised Jesus from the dead, who knew what would happen next?

Paul—Apostle

Who challenged the Thessalonians: “This is the will of God, your sanctification”.   He taught them about death.

Who challenged the Galatians: “Be not deceived, God is not mocked.”  He taught them about circumcision.

Who challenged the Philippians: “Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel”.  He taught them about service.

Who challenged the Romans: “Be ye not conformed but be ye transformed by the renewal of your minds.”  He taught them about the law.

Who challenged the Corinthians: “Be reconciled.  The form of this world is passing away”.  He taught them about culture.

Who challenged Philemon: “May your goodness not be by compulsion but of your own free will”.  He taught him about power.

Paul—Apostle

Whose mighty voice speaks to us today, in these verses from 1 Thessalonians 1 (the oldest chapter in the New Testament, from 50ad) ever answering the question of what we should do by saying something, first, about what God has done.  Our faith springs not from ourselves but from God, the Giver of both life and faith.

Paul reminds us that “the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7).  What else can we expect from a God who raises crucified Messiahs?  Who knows what will happen next?

The future is as open as we, in faith, will allow it to be.

                  We may recognize in Paul a form of thought that differs utterly from our own.  If Paul did retain some of his formative Jewish worldview, the part he closely retained here was his inherited apocalyptic eschatology.   The resurrection must be, he reasoned, the beginning of the end.  Hence, preaches Paul, the form of this world is passing away.

Paul’s worldview, his apocalyptic eschatology, is not our worldview.  Paul’s world, though, is very much ours too.  So, this morning, we shall need to imagine, to dream, and to interpret these verses in a new way, for a new time, as did Martin Luther, Elie Wiesel, Thomas Merton, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

No, we may not share Paul’s worldview, but we share his world.  So, we may benefit from his friendship, and practice his faith.   What a friend we have in Paul!  He befriends us by bequeathing us two kinds of hope.  And hope we do need, in a time of humiliation.  And what a time it is, this decade of diminishment. Let us survey our humiliation and let us convey our hope.

 

Today 

                  In the Gospel of Matthew 22, Jesus meets us between Caesar and God.  He is ensnared, or nearly so, in a trap set between conservative Herodians and liberal Zealots.  In good rabbinic fashion, he responds to a question with a question.  Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, this little bitty coin, and render to God what is God’s, your very life.

We are not alone in history to have suffered civic or cultural humiliation. As Christian people, trying by day and week to walk by faith not by sight, in an era of daily outrage and regular civic humiliation, we know something of the difficulty here, and something more perhaps than we knew a year ago today.  Sometimes you just have to learn things the hard way.  The preacher is not free to read the Bible and not the newspaper, nor free to preach without reference to civil society, culture, and the social conditions of life which have pervasive, profound impact and influence on the baptized and unbaptized alike.

Let us hold and finger the coin of Caesar as we are touched by the finger of God.  Let us take stock.

This past summer, at the Chautauqua Institution, we had the pleasure of learning from, dining with, and speaking to Stella Rimington, the former head of British Intelligence, MI 5 (1992-1996).  She was the first woman to lead that agency.  A television drama was produced about her, starring Judi Dench.  She was bristling and candid regarding current global perils.  She proferred no immediate or ready recommendation for resolution to the dangers posed by North Korea.  She affirmed no optimism about the current US President.  She frankly, bluntly admitted the US and British intelligence failures that led to the tragedy of Iraq, the mistaken misinformation about weapons of mass destruction.  She suggested that Theresa May should ‘warm up a little’.  In particular, she worried extensively in rumination about the internet, about the technology controlling so much about us.  That is, she offered no encouragement, no bright forecast for the near term global future.  To conclude, she said, as you would expect, ‘that nonetheless the best we can do is to ‘keep calm and carry on’.

Well might we cherish that reminder.  For we have entered a decade, at least, of freighted difficulty from which there is no rapid escape, no ready, present remedy.  In local, personal, idiosyncratic and individual ways, we each and we all can but soldier on.  The fruit of the spirit, upomone, patience, longsuffering, will need to be our daily manna, our daily cloud, our night fire, our nourishment that is more than bread alone.  There is no quick fix for the regrettable condition upon us, enveloping us, now, with a full year of evident humiliation heaped upon culture, nation, and globe, and our shared need to consider the opportunity to recant, to say in prayer, what we meant by that is not—a year’s evidence now in—what it means. We are judged not by intentions but by consequences.  What it means is what it did–to others and to all.  By the numbers, now, here is one quantification, one calculation of the decadal humiliation that is our current condition, 11 lines parsimoniously cut from four full pages of similar lines:

7—Muslim Nations’ Immigrants Initially Banned in January

54–B$ increase in military spending in February (10%)

2000–legal US citizens seeking Canadian refugee status in Montreal, in March

59—Tomahawk missiles that killed 10 Syrians in April

1—the number of FBI directors fired in May

10,000—the number of transgender soldiers serving in June

40,000—the number of Boy Scouts in Jamboree ‘addressed’ in July

1—the number killed  (Heather Heyer) amid ‘good people on all sides’ in Charlottesville in August

50—the percent of proposed tax cuts accruing to the top 1% in September

11—the number of paper towel rolls tossed at poor Puerto Ricans in October

0—the number of Planned Parenthood centers open in Iowa today

24M—the number under threat to lose health care every day

You now need to keep your own list.  An honest calculation, by the numbers or in some other fashion most effective for you, is a requirement for faithful living today.  You owe it to your future to record, collate, compile, journalize, narrate and describe what you see, and what you hear.

It seems that we have temporarily sold our birthright as a country for a mess of white racist, ethnic nationalist pottage.  And there are no guarantees.  No guarantee that civility and custom once shredded can somehow be restored, somehow survive daily outrage and humiliation.  No guarantee that the one person uniquely so empowered will not push the nuclear button at 5am.  No guarantee that having as a nation chosen this shared humiliation we will come to seek and find recantation and forgiveness.  No guarantee that many, especially and tragically those most vulnerable (the young, the brown, the foreign, the different and the poor) will not just give up on institutions and slide into the mire of anarchy.  No guarantee.  No guarantee at all.

 

Hope

No, we may not share Paul’s worldview, but we share his world.   So, we may benefit from his friendship, and practice his faith.   What a friend we have in Paul!  He befriends us by bequeathing us two kinds of hope.  And hope we do need, in a time of humiliation.  Let us survey our humiliation but let us also convey our hope. Let us lift a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope.

Two shades of hope abide.  “Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage” (Augustine).  One realized.  One unrealized.  One of John and one of Mark.  One for today and one for tomorrow.  One from Bultmann, and one from Niebuhr.

Here is one shade of hope.

You can in faith ‘face the world free from the world’, with a righteous and realized indignation, tempered with full humility. Even a kind of anger, if tempered with humility. That daily form of hope is yours by decision, by choice, through a commitment to live by the faith of Christ.  This is your invitation:  a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope.

We may rely not on ourselves alone, but upon God who raises the dead.

We may face the world, free from the world.

 We may lean into the future, free of the burden of past worry.

We can live on tip toe.

We can compose every day with brilliance as if it were our last, which, in a way, each one is.

The person of faith, who overhears the distress down deep in this world, so deep that others don’t hear it, does not rely on himself to sooth it.  He knows there is one Savior and he isn’t Him.

What a friend we have in Paul, who preaches Jesus Christ, and Him crucified!

Why does Paul teach this way?

Because Paul expects that “the form of this world is passing away”.   God has raised Jesus from the dead.  Who knows what will happen next?

For Paul, this meant a daily, excited, imminent expectation of the turn of the ages, a new heaven and earth, the end of time and the beginning of a new era.  For our sake, it is a blessing that Paul’s own timeline was a little fuzzy.  Otherwise we would not be here.  But the spiritual truth which lives in this passage, its existential reality, is the same.  Every day is our last.  Paul so reminds us, and so shakes us out of our stupor.  THIS is the day the Lord has made.  We shall rejoice and be glad in it!

In all of life, in the fullness of faith there lies this strange, new potential.  Potential.  Potential for something new.

We face the world, free from the world.

When things go south, let us live not in the form of this world (in despair and doubt and dread), but in the form of the coming world (hope and freedom and a sense of God’s awesome potential).

Bultmann: “Only Christ can give the kerygmatic character to everything which is ‘taught’ as Christian. Therefore, Christ is correctly preached not where something is said about him, but only where he himself becomes the proclaimer.”

The resurrection is, simply, the preaching of the gospel.  But preaching in a way that is heard. Bultmann helped us see the present hope in Paul, facing the world free from the world.

Here is a second shade of hope.

Niebuhr, the great Lutheran liberal, liberal (still a great tradition, affirmed from this pulpit, if not elsewhere, sore oppressed by both nationalism on the right and anarchy on the farther left), who helped us see the future hope in Paul.  Both shades of hope require a translation from apocalyptic expectation into insights for living today, both individual and collective, present and future, Bultmannian and Niebuhrian.  Niebuhr gradually left behind the optimistic and utopian tones of the social gospel.  He also gradually left behind the narrow and prideful tones of a strict socialism.  Gradually he found his way, as we will need to do again in this painful decade ahead, toward a faithful Christian realism.  He found a realistic way toward hope.  That is our work today as well.  We too need to beware ‘the sentimental optimism about the essential goodness of men without realizing how evil good men can be’.  We too need ‘a check not on policies but on pride, to guide men in a mood of dialectical humility’.  We too need to realize that ‘all justice rests on a balance of power’.

You can in love ‘love one another’ as Christ loves you, toward an unseen horizon, a far-off land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  You can hope against hope.

Let those who rejoice do so as if they were not rejoicing.  Let them rejoice not in the form of this world but in the form of the world to come.

We meet each day with courage. We touch and are touched in the presence of Divine Potential, the raw possibility of a new day. We live on tip toe.  We live each day as if it were our last, which it is.  We greet the hour and its struggle, from a certain distance, and over every loud booming statement there is a misty question mark.

You know, it is not always clear what is bad news, or good.  What can seem cause for the greatest rejoicing also can carry hurt, and vice-versa.  God’s time is not our time.  God’s purpose is not equivalent to any one of ours.  God’s justice is not the same as our own.  God’s freedom far surpasses yours and mine.  A crushing defeat can, in God’s time, and with patience, become the source, the medium of great victory.  I think of Franklin Roosevelt.  Where would our country be today, without his life’s strange mixture of rejoicing and suffering and struggle and perseverance?  Is it not odd that the one President who appeared to be the least vigorous, was in fact the most? ‘To lead you have to love, to save you have to serve’.

Let those who buy and sell, do so as if they had no goods.  Not in the form of this world, but in the form of the world to come.  Augustine said it so well:  we use what we should love and we love what we should use.  We use people and love things, when we are meant to love people and use things.

Yes, use the things of this world and buy and sell.  Let us do so, though, not in the form of this world, but in the form of the world to come.  Not in grasping selfishness, not in anxious pursuit, not in such strangely intense attention.  Rather:  with aplomb, with a certain disregard, with an inner freedom.

About your car, your house, your wardrobe, your bank account, your things—ask this:  Do you own it or does it own you?  Do you own it or does it own you? 

What a friend we have in Paul!

Paul who in hope wrote to the Thessalonians so long ago:

We give thanks to God always for you all, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess. 1: 1-10).

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

Words of Welcome

Sunday, October 15th, 2017

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Matthew 22: 1-14

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Welcome!

At this time in the year, at Boston University, we see parents and students, coming and going, sending and being sent. It is a bone jarring moment. It is reality, the reality of time and eternity, change and love. Most of our words to parents and students are meant to convey our sincere commitment to excellence, our attention to detail, our trustworthiness, if you will, as an institution and as individuals. The message is sincere and true, important and timely. This is a good place, and your sons and daughters will be here among good people.

But another reality of ‘Parents Weekend’ is about feelings, feelings wrought by coming and going. We also should speak of and to them. We see parents with their children and overhear…feelings.

There is a feeling of gratitude, so thick you can see it in the air. We mean not only the word of thanks that one more teenager is leaving home, one less bell to answer, one less egg to fry, though that is there, too. We mean the feeling that comes with a gasp in the throat, ‘thank you’, the feeling of seeing, my goodness, 18 or more years have gone by, and here, look, look at that young woman, that young man, my son, my daughter. It is a feeling of thanksgiving, for life, for youth, for children, for family, for affection. Every now and then, you catch a smile on a dad’s face, a lightness in a mom’s eyes, and you know gratitude, a real feeling.

There is a feeling of loss, too. In fact, loss is next door neighbor to gratitude, funny as that is. We mean not only the loss you feel with the first tuition check sent, though that is truly a real feeling.  In the autumn, we see sometimes a parent turn away, with eyes brimming, a private moment that even as a pastor I feel unworthy to engage. As a parent, I know that feeling.

There is a feeling of hope as well. You cannot be around many hundred eighteen year olds and turn a cold heart to the future. That much energy brings its own promise and parents feel it. At matriculation last month we sat in front of 3500 young hearts, 7000 young eyes and ears and hands, 3500 souls. When they cheer together there is a tingle, a mixture of awe and fear and wonder, like the feeling of a ten-foot wave breaking right in front of you. ‘Bless you’ we say and pray, and so do our parents. There is a new day upon us and it brings a sense of promise.

Now our parents have other things to think about and bigger fish to fry than to connect their feeling (far more than sentiment or emotion by the way) with the birth of Boston University. Yet these three feelings of gratitude and loss and promise created this school in 1839. Oh, John Dempster and the other 19th century founders would have used other, more religious, more technically theological terms, but the feelings were exactly theirs too, as they served as midwives at the birth of Boston University. In place of gratitude, they would have spoken of grace, prevenient grace at that. In place of loss, they would have spoken of itinerancy, the spiritual journey that is the heart of life. In place of promise, they would have invoked the gospel word of freedom, in the name of the God who is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. But the feelings—that is, the realities—are the very same, and they bring us straightway into the Gospel this morning.

Three Words of Welcome

Invitation

Do you hear a voice of invitation?

We seldom recognize what a powerful thing an invitation can be. We know the power of an invitation when we hungrily receive one heartily desired. Nothing in all the world ever happened between persons without invitations. Every sermon is in some way an invitation to decision for Christian discipleship.

The voice of invitation is an enticement, a coaxing, a luring, a courting. The board is spread, the meat and drink are prepared. All is well in the house. This open invitation is the mark of Christianity at its best.

You remember that St Matthew, the Evangelist, has a passion. It is invitation, evangelism. The point of the Gospel of Mathew the Evangelist is that he is an evangelist. This is his love. His first love. To seek the lost, gather the dispersed, church the unchurched. And it is a passionate love.

The fun of teaching knots is to show the tenderfoot the square knot. Everything else is derivative. The joy of coaching swimming is to help someone learn to float. All the rest is a corollary. The excitement of instruction in a language is the alphabet and the first declension and the initial vocabulary. All the rest is subordinate.

The capacity to offer a genuine invitation depends on the measure of verbal kindness, and so personal trust, within a community. Let me ask you to pause for a moment and think about the way we speak.

We are invited to feast with one another. We are invited somehow to communicate to one another that the joy of the Lord is our strength.

How many of us, by contrast, live lives that are visually beautiful but verbally vacuous? Maybe that is why Luke, in his telling of this parable, has the invitation go out to the poor, the maimed, the blind and the lame. To begin to invite, let us begin by attending to the character of our conversation as a community.

Warning

But the master’s call, as Matthew’s darkening tale reveals, is not heeded. That is the invitation is “taken lightly”, or as Matthew puts it, “they made light of it, and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants and treated them shamefully.” As they had, we are meant to interpret, the prophets of old.

The divine calling does not stop, but we now hear a second dimension of it. Here the call is not so much an invitation as it is a warning. One of the most startling points in the study of the parables is to notice the difference between Luke’s account of the story in Luke 14, and today’s reading. Luke is happy. Matthew is angry. Here a man has become a king, those who refuse are not forgotten but violently killed, those who miss their chance are not worthy, and many are called but few are chosen. It is hard not overhear some bitter church experience here, perhaps related to the persecution under the Emperor Domitian in the last decade of the first century.

While we may chafe at Matthew’s intensity, we can readily appreciate this new voice, a voice of warning. Jesus exists for us at some points as a warning. A warning that there does come a time when it is too late. All the parables have this element in them. The mercy of God is eternal, never ending, all pervading. But the time to accept the invitation is passing; the time to accept is the eternal now. There comes a time when it is too late. When we are sensitive, we hear this same warning all around us.

There does come a time when it is too late. The parables shout this warning. We cannot play forever with life-threatening nuclear weapons. We cannot supply the world with arms and expect them never to be used. We cannot applaud forever a narrow nationalism ill-suited to a global village. There does come a time when it is too late. The parables gracefully warn us of that time. Those of us laden with much property, much knowledge, much position may have a harder time hearing this than otherwise we would.

(The sad story which Matthew alone knows about the poor bloke who has no wedding robe apparently is a warning, either moral or spiritual. If moral, it is a warning that grace is free but not cheap. If spiritual, it is a warning that those invited to a daily feast should appreciate and celebrate.)

Summons

The call to the banquet is an invitation and warning, but in the end, it is a summons. “Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find”.

An open, general summons goes out. Even this morning.

A couple of weeks ago, during the communion, I recalled in one of our churches long ago the memory of an elderly man, thinking of the summons of a school bell. Every morning he would prepare to go off into the cold, at age 6. For the winter, he would cover himself from head to toe in layers of clothing. Then his mother would take a huge pancake from the griddle and put one in each mitten to keep his hands warm. The summons came. The bell rang. He dressed, prepared, and went.

For her, for me, for you, this summons is delivered: work is not meant to drive out love. No, nor are any other penultimate passions meant to take the place of God the God of love in our lives.

In Jesus Christ light came into a world of darkness. In him we are called—invited, warned, summoned—into the kingdom of heaven. This call is not an abstract, universal bellow. It is a whispering that touches and knocks at the door of every human heart. Jesus teaches of a pardoning God, who is quick to forgive. Jesus tells us of a gathering God, who gathers good and bad together. In him has the light shown in the darkness.

Exemplum Docet

Schweitzer: Invitation

Maybe we need to remember Albert Schweitzer, for all the complications and contradictions in his life and our memory of it.

A child organ prodigy, a youthful New Testament scholar, a young principal in his Alsatian theological seminary, a man whose books and articles I used with profit in my own dissertation a few years ago, Schweitzer’s life changed on the reading of a Paris Mission Society Magazine.

As a scholar, he wrote: (Tom) “He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word, ‘Follow me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.” (QHJ, 389).

What he wrote of Jesus became his life. He left organ and desk, studied medicine, and practiced in Africa for 35 years, calling his philosophy, ‘a reverence for life’. A decision about vocation leads to nearness to the divine. Like love, like falling in love, like the discovery of a soul mate, life partner, spouse, real friend, an invitation is as powerful as it is numinous. A real mystery.

Addams: Warning

Maybe we need to remember the young woman from Rockford Illinois, Jane Addams. She grew up 130 years ago, in a time and place unfriendly, even hostile, to the leadership that women might provide.   But somehow she discovered her mission in life. And with determination she traveled to the windy city and set up Hull House, the most far reaching experiment in social reform that American cities had ever seen. Hull House was born out of a social vision, and nurtured through the generosity of one determined woman. Addams believed fervently that we are responsible for what happens in the world. So, Hull House, a place of feminine community and exciting spiritual energy, was born. Addams organized female labor unions. She lobbied for a state office to inspect factories for safety. She built public playgrounds and staged concerts and cared for immigrants. She became politically active and gained a national following on the lecture circuit. She is perhaps the most passionate and most effective advocate for the poor that our country has ever seen.

Addams wrote: (Denise)“The blessings which we associate with a life of refinement and cultivation must be made universal if they are to be permanent…The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in midair, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

Yet it was a former neighbor who, for me, explained once the puzzle of Jane Addams’ fruitful generosity. This was the historian Christopher Lasch. He said of Addams, “Like so many reformers before her, she had discovered some part of herself which, released, freed the rest.” 

Is there a part of your soul ready today to be released, that then will free the rest of you?

Thurman: Summons

Maybe we need to remember Howard Thurman. The first page of his autobiography announces today’s gospel, that Jesus empowers his disciples, in summons. As a summer student minister, Thurman received a late-night phone call.

(Nick) ‘There is a patient here who is dying. He is asking for a minister. Are you a minister?’ 

 In one kaleidoscopic moment, I was back again at an old crossroad. A decision of vocation was to be made here, and I felt again the ambivalence of my life and my calling. Finally, I answered. ‘Yes, I am a minister’. ‘Please hurry’, she said, ‘or you’ll be too late’…

  In a barely audible voice (the man) said, ‘Do you have something to say to a man who is dying? If you have, please say it, and say it in a hurry.’

I bowed my head, closed my eyes. There were no words. I poured out the anguish of my desperation in one vast effort. I felt physically I was straining to reach God. At last, I whispered my Amen. 

We opened our eyes simultaneously as he breathed, ‘Thank you. I understand.’ He died with his hand in mine.

Sursum Corda. Lift up your hearts. Hear the gospel in invitation, warning, and summons. Words of welcome, words of welcome, words of welcome:

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring

I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away

And wait to watch the water clear I may

I shan’t be gone long. You come too.

 

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

Readers: Tom Batson, Denise-Nicole Stone, Nickholas Rodriguez

Ministry is Service

Sunday, October 8th, 2017

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Philippians 2:5-8

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Have this mind among you, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, takin the form of a servant, being born in human likeness.

Exegesis

For most of 2017 here at Marsh Chapel we have attentively followed St. Matthew, as the basis of our preaching, including through our national summer series. We are grateful for the Gospel of Matthew, including his remembrance of the parable of the watchtower, a teaching about watchfulness, about judgment, and about living on the ‘qui vive’. Today, we turn, though, away from the Gospel, and toward the Epistle, which we have happily been hearing these past several weeks, that of Paul to the Philippians, his most ringingly joyful letter.

Our lessons today are about service, about ministry. Ministry is service. The word means service. We are taught, here, in Philippians, to hunt for life, to find real life, to have the experience of really being alive, in ministry, in service. This morning our readings invite you to think a bit about service. ‘Taking the form of a servant…’

In the advent of Christ Jesus, anxiety is eclipsed by joy, fear is overcome in thanksgiving. All this happens in service.

At Marsh Chapel, we are expectantly awaiting the advent of another generation of twenty year olds and others who are captured by the mind of Christ and enchanted by the prospect of service in his name. But if this is so, we shall need to be direct and honest, with them and with ourselves, about what service involves.

It may be that this intention lies behind Paul’s magnificent letter to the Philippians. Paul is writing, in the mid- 50’s of the first century, from a prison cell. Think Martin Luther King, Anwar Sadat, Nelson Mandela. Paul notes the resistance that some have to his trip into the slammer. Not everyone finds Paul’s stay in the calaboose uplifting. Some do. Some see the gospel advanced through imprisonment. Some do not. Some see Paul being Paul, always spoiling for a fight, always on the edge of conflict, always polemical Paul. They preach Christ, but denigrate Paul, or denigrate Paul in the way they preach Christ.

Let us imagine what may also have been in the air, though we cannot prove it. Let us imagine that Paul decides not, at this point, to parry. Imagine that rather, he listens, hard, to this. He wants to understand: The Greek knows a thing by ‘overstanding it’ where we understand (by getting to the bottom of it) EPISTAMAI’. Paul wants to understand, to stand under, to go underground, to see the underpinnings.

Exposition

To provide some exposition of Paul’s letter, let us look for a moment at our own experience.

Service requires the willingness to be immersed in community life. Community life means endless contention and intractable difference. In a family, church, town, city, university, country or community, real life means real life, including conflict. Anyone in public life and leadership, including clergy, but not only clergy, and not mainly clergy, knows the disappointment involved in service. Here is some good news. Look at disappointment. Look at it– with reverence for the meaning underlying it.

It takes a big dose of courage to swallow disappointment and to hunt around in disappointment for what may happen when people meet in a real, shared partnership based on real, shared struggle. And that swallowing, friends called to service, friends engaged in ministry, friends growing to leadership size, that swallowing is the beginning of wisdom. Here, conflict. But also–the opportunity, taken or missed, to enter another’s real life, real pain, real soul.

It is from the locations that people give you that you will have the chance to give people some healing. If they place you in a high pulpit, far off and up there, and 15 feet above contradiction, the ministry will have to begin there. It need not end there. If they place you in a rough parsonage with a leaky roof and a long, sad history, the ministry will have to begin there, but should not end there. If they place you at the family table, as guest and as host and as minister, you can start where they are, there, but you need not end there.

In 1982, one bitter cold February Saturday night, we were invited to dinner. Saturday night always carries a proleptic anxiety over Sunday morning, especially, as in the case of this clear winter night, on the Canadian border, when the morning’s sermon was not finished, was still in gestation, was still seven months at least from birth, with birth only hours away. The family dinner, it turned out, was an extended family dinner, three generations, hosted by grandma and grandpa. After dinner, the dozen of us retired to the family room of the big country house, when, over dessert, the purpose of the evening arrived. Or was revealed. Grandpa wanted grandson to be Christian, to believe, to be confirmed, and to attend church, and wanted the new preacher to effect this, to explain faith, to defend belief, to convert the heathen, then and there. It needs emphasis that these, all, were the ruddiest and handsomest and best of good people, none with more than a high school diploma. They had a location into which they had appointed a minister, their minister. If ministry was to start, it would have to start there, which it did, over a couple of hours. The minister answered what questions he could. He did not complain about the ambush, but he did identify it. Then he also asked his questions, of the family and for the family, questions of histories and systems and silences and, even, identified patients. By 11pm, the work was done, but not the sermon. It was a sneak attack, to be sure. But it was also an invitation to partnership. Leaving in a huff, in defiance, would have communicated boundaries but would not have been service. Answering questions but asking none, compliance, would have communicated sincerity but not authenticity, and would not have been service.

Exhausted and enervated, the minister and young family drove home through the crisp snow and black beautiful cold, cold night, the temperature 20 below zero And still no sermon finished for the next morning.

Leaders. Current leaders. Future leaders. Servant leaders: You cannot leave false nametags on your shirt or back, as inevitable as their placement is. They need removal. But you also cannot predict where real, responsive service or ministry will emerge. People only hear you when they are moving toward you. (repeat) They can best move toward you when you are located near them.

When you are invited to become chaplain of the fire department, accept. When you are asked to pray at the blue and gold banquet, accept. When you are encouraged to join the country club, accept. When you are invited to Saturday dinner, accept. When you are called to come to the barn for a talk, accept. When you are asked to visit the family burial ground, accept. When you are invited to speak at Christmas for the service club, go. When you are encouraged, not so subtly, to visit Aunt Tillie, make the visit. As a rule, accept every invitation. These are overtures, questions and hopes, addressed to you and to who knows who. Your response: ‘I am at your disposal, at your service’.

Application

In respect of Paul, as our exegesis has shown, and as our exposition has outlined, we turn to apply Philippians to Christian life in America, 2017, awaiting a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope (repeat). The One Who took the form of a servant meets us today right in the teeth of the gale, in the heart of the storm.   He speaks to us the eternal word. Peace. He speaks to us the saving word. Have this mind among you–a timely word, a fit word, a word fitly spoken. We are a people drenched in sorrow, anger, worry, and exasperation. The boat is heaving from side to side, stem to stern, port to starboard.   Newtown, Santa Monica, Washington, West Charleston, San Bernardino, Orlando, Dallas…Las Vegas.

What shall we say, think and do? But, friends, you know your answer already, to this. (We all need more reminder than instruction.)

You can continue to pray, to vote and to act.

By pray I do mean daily meditation, including the shouting, actual or metaphorical, of lament in the face of horrific evil. But I also mean the intentional gathering, come Sunday, with others who seek a measure of meaning, belonging and empowerment. You can do this. You can engage and support others. If week by week you only regularly see family, co-workers, or those who share your own interests, you will not meet with difference, which you need in order to grow. But in the pew you have every prospect of meeting with others who are not relatives, not employees or employers, and not inclined to your own particular enjoyments. Not your mom, not your boss, and not your golf partner. Others–who are other. Somehow as a people we think that we can muster the will to address issues on the grand scale, when our orbits of relationship are with people who are like us, are like ourselves. This is like desiring to recite Shakespeare without knowing the alphabet, or diving into the Calculus without mastering multiplication tables, or running a marathon without first jogging two miles. This next summer our preaching series considers Martin Luther King’s ‘beloved community’. But to stretch toward that Johannine, Roycean, and Kingly vision, we have to start by sitting for an hour near people who are other than we, in the presence of God.

By vote I do mean election-day ballots. One of our leaders here at BU, when asked what advice she might have for graduates of 2017 said, simply, ‘vote’. Yes, go to the polls. But I also mean the direct engagement with elected officials and others over time that makes a difference. Personal engagement. One of our most beloved and vivacious friends here in Boston died suddenly of cancer six years ago. How we miss her. One day we were walking together on the Esplanade. We were talking about gun violence. In the middle of the talk, she pulled out her cell phone and dialed her congressman. ‘They know me there. I have them on speed dial’. She poured out the contents of our conversation to some staff person. Well that may not be your style, or mine, but it was hers, and she voted every day with her time, her energy, and her money. She was a great person. We need to be speaking and listening, in person, by voice, to and with one another, to a degree well and far beyond what we are doing now.

By act I do mean doing something, within your sphere of influence. Several gathered here at Marsh Chapel for a compline service this past Monday evening. Others attended other events. You may have decided to attend a gathering for good sometime this week—a fund raiser for Puerto Rico, a walk for peace in our time, a committee meeting to address, in some measurable way, the horror of gun violence, with more than 200 mass killings in this country this year. Good for you. Tell them Dean Hill sent you. Let us find ways to act. Our Boston University President, Dr. Robert A. Brown, challenged us this week to ‘seek to understand the causes of grotesque acts of inhumanity that we might work toward making the world a better, safer place.’ There is a danger of freezing in the face of seemingly intractable difficulties, in the face of endless unsolvable contentions. 350 million guns there are across the land. Yes. Yes. I know. These and other facts of the present can freeze us, if we are not careful. But you know, life is full of change, even surprising change. In her late 80’s my grandmother had a sign up on her kitchen door. It read: ‘Do one thing. There. You have done one thing.’ I have a voice, and I will use my voice. You do too.

Speak through the pulses of desire

Thy coolness and thy balm

Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire

Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire

Thy still, small voice of calm.

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

Sharing in the Spirit

Sunday, October 1st, 2017

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Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

Click here to listen to the meditations only

Good morning! It is an honor to be sharing the Word with you from the pulpit of Marsh Chapel again! Thank you to Dean Hill for this opportunity and to my colleagues here at Marsh Chapel for their support in organizing today’s worship service – especially our anthems from the choir for the day.

I want to invite you to take a moment to think about the best dinner you’ve ever attended. I don’t mean necessarily the meal that you ate – maybe that’s a part of it – but the best dinner experience you’ve had. I’m almost sure that this dining experience you’re remembering right now is with at least one other person…maybe a whole table full of people. How did you feel? What did you talk about? Maybe your dinner was a part of a celebration, for a birthday or an anniversary. Maybe it was at a family holiday gathering. Maybe it was with friends out at a restaurant. Maybe it was a home-cooked meal made by a family member. There is something about that dinner that sticks with you, a connection made, an emotion felt, an experience that cannot be forgotten.

Every Tuesday night in this building, something wonderful and amazing happens. Onions are chopped, sometimes with tears, dough is kneaded and shaped, chickpeas ground, tomatoes sliced, garlic sautéed. Simple ingredients are turned into a meal. And while all of this is happening, people gather. Some of us are in the kitchen, learning how to make whatever dish is on the menu that night. Some stand just inside or outside the doorway, carrying on conversation with those who are cooking, and others gather just down the hall conversing about the week so far or playing the occasional game of Jenga. We all come from different backgrounds – some of us from neighboring towns in Massachusetts, some from the South or the West, some from China, or Mexico, or India, or Nigeria. The places we know as “home” might differ, but in our interactions we create a new place of belonging for ourselves.

Global Dinner Club has grown in the last two years as an opportunity for hospitality and understanding across cultural differences as members of the Boston University community come together to share a meal and conversation. Most students, when they first come, ask the same question: “You do this every week? For free?” Yes, a home-cooked meal, prepared with care and attention by people who may or may not know each other all with the goal of sharing together. And sometimes those new people jump right in, offering to chop or slice, stir or roll, and sometimes they hold off for a week or two, observing what goes on before feeling confident and comfortable enough to fully participate. And that’s okay too – no one is ever told they must help or participate, but we hope they come around to it sooner or later.

Tuesday nights are wonderful and amazing because they are grounded in love. Every person who attends wants to be in community with others – even if they’ve had a hard day. Global Dinner Club serves as a release from coursework and other concerns, allowing space to only focus on cooking and enjoying food with each other for a few hours.

What is also amazing about Global Dinner Club is that it is antithetical to everything that the world wants me to believe about life in the United States at the current moment. It is people from all different backgrounds and varying ages coming together only with the agenda of eating and getting to know each other. Attendees find points of commonality – for instance, a favorite television show or a class taken – and from there the conversation grows. Or they find points of difference – for example, idioms that are commonplace in American English need further explanation to make sense for non-native English speakers. As an aside, this week I realized how Western the term “damsel in distress” is, and how hard it is to explain if you didn’t grow up with fairy tales about castles and knights and dragons. While there are barriers we have to overcome in understanding each other sometimes, and while there are many possible outside forces that prevent us from experiencing the joy of learning from others and growing in friendship, it is still possible. It gives me hope at a time when so much of our world seems to be in chaos. It reminds me that love is stronger than hate.

Consuming food for nourishment is a basic need for all human beings, but it becomes something so much more because it is shared. Eating together enables us to get to know one another. It is an intimate act. When I asked you to envision the best dinner you’d ever attended, I bet it brought back particular memories about whom you shared it with and the emotions you felt during that time. Sharing a meal unifies those gathered around a table through telling stories, revealing oneself enough to find common ground, and leaving behind quarrels or divisions to enjoy a meal together. We may, at one time or another, have sat at a table with someone who sees the world differently than us, but have been able to learn and grow from interacting with them over a meal. It is not the act of eating alone that brings us together, but the act of sharing in the experience of a meal – of conversation and eating, words and action – that enable us to grow into community.

In the lesson we heard this morning from Philippians, Paul urges the community of Christians in Philipi that they must be unified. That they mustn’t let in-fighting and quarreling divide them. They must act as servants to one another, acting in love toward one another. In order to “share in the Spirit” they must be willing to be open and humble as Christ-followers. Anticipating the needs of the other and looking toward the interests of the other before thinking of one’s self interests. Living in community with others is difficult, and Paul knows this, but he emphasizes that one of the ways that the community in Phillipi can come together is to let God be front and center in their minds as they go about interacting with one another, serving each other’s needs as God acts through them to do so.

A meal is a great place to put this into practice – not only are we able to meet the physical needs of others by providing the sustenance offered through food, but we are able to provide the emotional and spiritual support of others through listening and offering parts of our own journeys with them. Extending hospitality to others is a part of our Christian heritage, and a meal can be just that for those searching for it.

Sharing a meal is a sacred act. Today we will share in a meal together in Holy Communion. Other religious traditions also share sacred meals. Every Friday our Jewish friends celebrate Shabbat.  At the end of each fasting day during Ramadan, our Muslim brothers and sisters break their fast by sharing in iftar, and culminate their month-long fasting with an Eid al-Fitr dinner. In most worship practices within Hinduism, worshipers consume the prasad, the food which is first offered and then ultimately blessed by deities. Consuming food, especially together, is an important, sacred activity within many religious traditions other than our own.

Today, in a few moments, we will share in a particularly special and unifying meal in our worship service. The first Sunday of the month is always Communion Sunday here at Marsh Chapel. But today is an even more special day – today we celebrate World Communion Sunday. This first Sunday in October is celebrated throughout the Christian world as a time when we intentionally recognize how all Christians are connected to one another through sharing in the sacred meal of Holy Communion. Created in the early 20th century by the Presbyterian church, the importance and popularity of World Communion Sunday grew during World War II, when the world appeared to be tearing itself apart with conflicts on many fronts. Christian ecumenicism, bringing together many of the Mainline Protestant traditions and some of the orthodox traditions, helped people find points of connection rather than being defined by the theological traditions that separated their individual Christian denominations.  It resulted in the development of Christian-led reconciliation work in the face of on-going conflict that continues to this day through organizations like the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches. Today, World Communion Sunday offers us a time to see how the Body of Christ extends across the globe in many shapes and forms as a unified whole. While communing with individuals who claim different denominational affinities, or none at all, is not out of the ordinary for us here at Marsh Chapel, today we affirm the call to come together as one in this sacred meal, open to all who wish to partake.

Our ritual of Holy Communion is not a full meal. At most, we usually get a bite of bread and a sip of wine or grape juice. But it stands for a bigger meal with a greater meaning for us. In preparation for today’s sermon, I read Lutheran theologian and historian Martin Marty’s The Lord’s Supper. It is a small book and easy to read, designed for the everyday person – I highly suggest it if you’re looking to learn more about how and why we do the things we do during Communion. In it, Marty reminds the reader that we must keep in mind the greater context of what we are doing through the act of communion.  He states: “The Lord’s Supper is often called “Holy Communion,” a coming-together of bread with body, wine with blood, God with creatures, and believers with one another. To realize through Communion that one is a social human being who shares common miseries and joys is a benefit of this meal. It serves to lift a person beyond mere “me-ness.” While we may come to church services looking to find something that will resonate with us individually, usually through a sermon or the prayers, we must also be reminded that the purpose of worship, and specifically communion, is to bring us together as a “we.” Not just as a “we” of people in one place, but a “we” of connection with all others, including God and the creation. Communion brings us back in touch with the earth, to see the way God works through the world.

Just like a regular meal we might have on a daily basis, Communion also consists of words and actions. And in order to be communion, it must have both to. In the Small Catechism, the instruction booklet of faith for Lutherans, Martin Luther explains that communion is more than just eating and drinking. It is the combination of words shared and the action of eating and drinking that constitute the sacred act of grace and forgiveness which makes Holy Communion a sacrament rather than just another meal. In the words spoken by Jesus that we repeat during Holy Communion, and following his actions with the disciples, we are a part of the sacrament. Jesus said “Take and eat, this is my body, given for you.” “Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” When we offer and receive, sharing these holy words, we are a part of the experience of the divine and are brought together as members of God’s holy family.

The meal we share in communion helps to feed our souls by offering us the grace of the divine and encouraging us to let that grace work through us in service of creating a more just and loving world. In coming together as a congregation, we open ourselves up to bear the burdens and serve the interests of others through sharing in the Spirit with one another. Our task is to continue extending the grace offered to us through our experience within Holy Communion by loving our neighbors and showing care for them. One way we may show care is offering a meal, or a place to rest to those who need it. Or we might gather supplies for those experiencing loss, like our community-minded service group MOVE is doing for people in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean. If the intentions of our actions are grounded in faith, then we do much more than meet the physical needs of others. We also extend God’s love into the world.

We come together in worship to hear the Gospel, bear each other’s troubles, ask for forgiveness, receive God’s grace, and go out into the world living our lives being carried forward by the mind of Christ. Let us look for the ways in which we can all share in the Spirit with others, especially those who are marginalized or oppressed, creating a community of understanding and support, outside of this physical space and time. Let God work through us to bring forth justice and reconciliation in the world. Let us simply look up from our plates across the table to those sitting around us and share pieces of ourselves with others along with our meal. Amen.

-Jessica Ann Hittinger Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students