Archive for February, 2018

Power, Mutuality, and #MeToo

Sunday, February 25th, 2018

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Genesis 17:1-7

Genesis 17:15-16

Mark 8:31-38

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Would you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Some years ago, I was at a clergy training. For those of you who have attended daylong trainings, you will have some sense of what this felt like: forgettable food, unlimited caffeine to counteract the effects of a too-warm room, and wide swings between sparkling presentations and somniliquy. But one brief moment from that day is seared into memory. The trainer had just finished explaining the practice of having open door or glass-door one-on-one meetings with congregants. We were using a video series from the FaithTrust institute, which offers the gold standard for ethics and boundaries training for faith leaders from a variety of traditions, from rabbis to ministers to Buddhist monks. The trainer decided to go a bit off script, and he shared that a male bishop he worked with would not drive to any district meeting, church visit, or other event alone with a woman. This male bishop would share a car for the ride with a male clergy colleague, but in order to be “above reproach,” he would make sure to take separate cars when driving to a meeting with a female clergy colleague. In this midwestern setting, the circuits were long and the districts far apart; this is the part of the country where travelling 100 miles can take 100 minutes, with flat farmland as far as the eye can see. True heirs of the Wesleyan heritage, the bishop and the cabinet would often put 50,000 miles a year on their cars.

Something felt wrong about the comment, and I felt the sudden urge to ask “why?,” but a number of ways in which I had been socialized held me back. He stood at the front of the room as the teacher, and I sat in the back, a student. Unless I could explain why his statement was problematic, I would be interruptive, and besides, I could sidetrack the conversation and drag out an already long day. He was my elder, and I was surrounded by clergy with decades more life and ministry experience. I was barely of legal drinking age, and the forty and fifty-something second career pastors seemed to not even blink at the comment. I must be too young to get it. As a child, I had been an incredibly curious and loquacious little girl who had learned that asking why too many times was a great way to annoy your parents. I had learned to be more precise in my language, and that adults responded better to a question with more detail and less emotion. This reaction felt too sudden to be rational. And he was a man, married for nearly two decades, and I was a woman, a newlywed, who had recently been given a hotel room with twin beds instead of a queen at annual conference after a snafu where the front desk could not understand why I hadn’t changed my last name. What did I know of what made a marriage over the decades? And what did I know of the world of men and the choices they made to act ethically and keep boundaries?

All these thoughts and more ran through my mind so quickly that it would take months to disentangle them from one another. All of these anxieties were tamped down internally, and I said nothing. The moment passed, as these sorts of moments so often do, in silence.

And later, as I fumed in my room, the “why” of why I had felt the urge to shout “why” finally emerged into the forefront. Why was the bishop only moving through a world of men? At the time of this training, a single district superintendent was a woman, and the cabinet, nearly two dozen conference level officials, had just three women on staff, one of whom was the bishop’s assistant. Why were there so few women on the conference staff? Even if it was not deliberate exclusionary practice, and I didn’t think it was, this bishop would regularly spend hours upon hours one-on-one with his fellow male clergy. Three hours each way to a district meeting leaves a lot of time for talking about ministry, for asking advice, and for networking. Those hours add up, and leaders frequently choose those whom they know, trust, and have spent time with to elevate to positions of authority. This attempt to behave “above reproach” had hurt the career opportunities of countless female clergy. Why couldn’t the bishop just keep a policy of not travelling one-on-one in a car with anyone? To travel in groups or alone? This attempt at ethical leadership was not ethical and not leadership, and it propagated a more homogenous clergy, a more homogenous cabinet, and a more homogenous church.

But weighing my options, I decided not to speak up. I was not even commissioned, let alone ordained, and I did not have the security of an appointment. I did not expect any kind of formal retaliation, but I did not want the headache of the confrontation. The comment itself, and the hundreds of micro-decisions I needed to make about whether or not to respond in the moment, were exhausting. I did not want the additional exhaustion of drawing out the moment. Besides, the moment had passed, and I had not spoken up in the moment. Silence often begets silence.

But the gospel, the good news, is a spoken word, a good, true, spoken word. And God speaks to us in a good word of relationship, of covenantal relationship, of the potential for relationship with God and with one another. The God who spoke us into being and sent a Word to live among us gives the freedom and enlivening Spirit to speak to one another. And the time is always right to speak right.

Our text this morning from Genesis 17 is the foundation of the covenant God makes with Abraham and Sarah. “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.” From God’s offer of relationship with us, we learn three important things about how we are to live with God and with one another. First, God offers covenantal relationship to women as well as to men. It is not just that Abraham is our father in faith, but that Sarah is our mother in faith, the mother of the covenant. When we limit the imagination of our leadership in our faith communities and in our other work communities we close off the divine imagination that calls women and men equally.

Second, covenantal relationship is based on mutuality and freedom. The covenant into which God calls Abraham and Sarah is the definition of an unequal power dynamic. After all, God is God and we are not. But God does not abuse that power. God doesn’t force Abram and Sarah to do what God wants. God calls and invites humanity into divine relationship, and we are given the freedom to respond, to live up to the high calling to which we are called, to “walk before God, and be blameless.” God honors the divine image that we bear. God offers to and does hold up God’s end of the covenant. God also offers us divine freedom for humanity to do what God asks of us.

Third, God models how to have relationship with others when there is a power imbalance. Whether it is a doctor-patient relationship, a teacher-student relationship, a pastor-congregant relationship, an employer-employee relationship, or any other of the myriad ways in which we humans have structured ourselves into intrapersonal dynamics where power is not shared equally, we are called to exercise authority with responsibility. Power does not naturally lead to abuse, but power that is abused does. God, in relationship with Abraham and Sarah, does not demand a cult of personality, but instead offers a covenant of mutuality.

Jesus in our Gospel also has something to say to systems of abusive power. The cross, the method of execution used by an abusive, oppressive state, was intended to crush those whom it killed and the hopes of those who watched. The cross was meant to cut off air to resistance, to speech, to breath, and to life. Jesus has something to say about that. To Peter, who attempts to change the subject, who denies the possibility that an abusive system could ever harm his teacher, Jesus says, Get behind me Satan! No one is too smart, too kind, too anything to be above risk when abusive systems of power and abusive persons are elevated to positions of power. To those in authority who abuse their power, who create a system to prop up their own power by crushing others, Jesus, asks, pointedly, For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and lose their soul? And to those who would hope to lead, who might be at risk, in taking power, to abuse it, Jesus warns, “Deny yourself, take up that cross.” Too often, this catchprase has been used abusively, by pastors urging people to stay with their abusers. To them, I say, As one of my colleagues, a brilliant pastor and biblical scholar puts it, “you ain’t reading it right.”

The cross is an attempted abuse of power. To pick up a cross, to push against its strain and weight, and to keep breathing, is an act of resistance, it is a speech-act, and it breathes life even in the midst of death. Following Jesus requires not abusing power, and it also demands that we strain against those human systems we have created which attempt to crush through abusive power. For Jesus also tells us here that the cross is not the end, and that the grave is not victorious. The façade of abusive power will, at some day, even if it is on the great lasting day, crumble and fall.

The #MeToo movement, first begun by Tarana Burke in 2007, has brought to the fore thepervasive problems of sexual abuse and harassment. From hotel cleaning staff to assembly line workers, from judicial clerks to academics, women have been speaking out against the ways in persons have abused their power and the ways in which systems have ignored and enabled that abuse to continue, sometimes for years. And faith communities have not been above the fray. One only has to follow the hashtag #churchtoo to hear stories from women and men who have been harassed and abused within their church communities.

#MeToo is about the basics. It is about naming the problem of power. Sexual harassment and sexual abuse are ultimately about power, not sex. And sometimes it is good for the church to go over the basics.  Religious organizations need to be able to talk about the problem of power, to teach that it is wrong to abuse power, and to develop theologies about power. We need to teach our children these things, but sometimes we need to remind ourselves as well.

The things that we know are wrong, we should still take the time to say are wrong. The things we don’t think need repeating do need repeating. We must remind ourselves, and teach our children, that abuse is wrong. Physical abuse is wrong. Emotional, spiritual, verbal, and psychological abuse is wrong. Intimate relationships must have mutuality as their basis; one should be able to share strength and vulnerability in equal measure with a partner. This is why it is unethical for a person who is in an authority position over another to enter into an intimate relationship with a person who is reliant upon them, whether for medical treatment, classroom learning, spiritual guidance, athletic coaching, or a paycheck.

There is another facet of the #metoo movement, and it relates to the problematic ways in which men have tried to “protect” women. How can a military man, for example, who bemoans a time when “women were considered sacred and looked upon with great honor” praise the integrity of a man who has been accused of physical abuse by three former partners? It seems to boggle the mind, but with a theology of mutuality, of covenantal relationship, we are able to see through the fog of obfuscation and name the ways in which this statement and those actions are two sides to the same coin.

“Women are considered sacred and looked upon with great honor.” This lament for a halcyon bygone era is a description better suited to objects than people. You might describe a precious possession this way, perhaps a family heirloom set on display, a piece of art hanging ona wall, or an artifact donated to a museum. In this logic, women are first and foremost objects to be protected, not colleagues who are presumed to be persons of integrity, whose word should be believed. In a workplace dominated by men, with certain expectations of what roles women play in society and in the workplace, a man’s word is seen as stacking high against the claims, even of multiple women. This, of course, is an extreme example, but behind every #MeToo story of extreme abuse and harassment lie hundreds of smaller moments, of opportunities missed, invitations not extended, and mentoring overlooked, hundreds of off-handed comments at daylong trainings which reveal the problems we have concealed for too long.

The Lenten season is a time for introspection and preparation. It is a good time to take stock, to look squarely at the troubles of the world, and to prepare ourselves for the great mystery of Holy Week that encompasses all of the hurt and hope of creation. Perhaps, this Lent, you can think back to your own relationships, both personal and professional. Is there a place of hurt that you have buried? Perhaps this Lent, think about speaking, to a therapist, to a close friend, to yourself in a journal, or perhaps just to God in prayer. Is there a relationship in which you did not act in mutuality, where you took for granted or even took advantage of the power you had over others? Perhaps this Lent you will take time and space for an examination of conscience, repentance, and change.

In preparation for this sermon, in this Lenten series, I’ve been doing a lot of swimming around in Thomas Merton, who was a truly prolific writer. One only needs to consider the bibliography page on the Thomas Merton society website to get a sense that there are far more stories than seven in the Merton mountain. But when I think about power, mutuality, and the complex ways in which we relate to one another and to God, I found comfort and meaning in Merton’s famous prayer on direction and discernment. Would you be in prayer with me?

 

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,

though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

-The Reverend Jennifer Quigley

 

A Word in the Wilderness

Sunday, February 18th, 2018

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Mark 1: 9-15

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May the Gracious God, Holy and Just

From whom we come and unto whom our spirits return

The source of Wisdom, fount of Wisdom, well spring of saving Wisdom

Make of us, this Lent, 2018, an addressable community

That we might listen

That we might hear

That we might understand

That we might listen, hear and understand before we analyze or criticize

May God make of us an addressable community

 

May God make of us a benevolent community

That we might polish our proclivity for the second thought, the second try, the second chance

That we might expect to uncover a latent goodness, latent in others and in ourselves and across this great, though troubled, globe

That we might become good in ways that become the Gospel

May God make of us, we pray, a benevolent community

 

May God make of us, we pray, a soulful community

Alive to spirit, alive to love, alive to grace

And take away from our souls all strain and stress

Let us breathe again, breathe deeply, breathe the soulful breath of life

Make of us a soulful community

For we have gathered and bear witness to Jesus, our beacon not our boundary.

 

Today we are again a land, culture, people and country drenched in sorrow, now due to the unspeakable horror, the unnecessary American carnage in Parkland, Florida. In a decade of deepening humiliation, wherein our current elected leadership readily chooses to exchange long term moral judgment for short term political opportunity, we can but rise up, come Sunday, and face God. One way, this morning, will be to start simply by naming those dead, those children and others sacrificed on the altar of hideously exaggerated individual gun rights:

Alyssa Alhadeff, 14

Scott Beigel, 35

Martin Duque, 14

Nicholas Dworet, 17

Aaron Feis, 37

Jaime Guttenberg, 14

Chris Hixon, 49

Luke Hoyer, 15

Cara Loughran, 14

Gina Montalto, 14

Joaquin Oliver, 17

Alaina Petty, 14

Meadow Pollack, 18

Helena Ramsay, 17

Alex Schachter, 14

Carmen Schentrup, 16

Peter Wong,15

 

Wilderness Theology

Lent is indeed a time of wilderness travel, reflection, theology and preaching. Over a past decade, 2007-2016, Lent by Lent, here at Marsh Chapel, we identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition.  For this current decade, 2017-2026, we turn to the Catholic tradition.   With Calvin, that is, in the earlier decade, we encountered the chief resource for others we engaged over the last ten years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), Paul of Tarsus (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin), (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008), and, of course, himself, John Calvin.  But beginning with Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, did turn left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we in these years will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, and others, one per year.  Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?  For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list.  We began with Henri Nouwen (2017). We continue with Thomas Merton (2018). Next year, St. John of the Cross (2019).

Thomas Merton was born in 1915 and died in 1968, fifty years ago. This Lent we follow his thought by following his life, most famously recounted in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (storey being an English way of spelling what in American English we call story—meaning the same, meaning a level in a house or building). His compelling account of conversion and vocation, placing him for life in a Trappist monastery, holds us in part because of his global engagement with global and local culture, and personal and family life. He reads. He loves art. He travels. He learns. He fails. Most heavily, he loses to death his mother and his father at quite early ages. Another sermon or another occasion might compare and contrast his testimony to that of Augustine of Hippo from the late fourth century. More immediately, though, his personal travels along the terrain of spirit and spirituality, far more in vogue today, we might say, than they were fifty years ago, may illumine a dark corner for a frustrated undergraduate, or challenge a heedless pride for a wise academic, or inspire a new-found energy in a lapsing person of faith, or, say for you, call you again to faith, to the gift of faith, to the reception of the gift of faith. We travel with Thomas Merton this Lent.

 

Wilderness Scripture

As Merton reminds us, the body and its habits, in collusion with the unconscious and its rhythms, takes us where we habitually go, to do what we ritually do. We are creatures of habit, guided along by our suppositions and assumptions. Lent arrives to wake us up, to make us aware. Lent arrives to challenge us to move from sensation to reflection, from activity to awareness. Hence the overwhelming response this past Wednesday by Boston University students and others to eight Ash Wednesday services, all heavily attended, half Protestant, half Catholic. This affirmation of ritual in worship will need further attention from us, in the days ahead. Our millennials are teaching us and telling us something.

Jesus meets us today in the long experience of the wilderness. The wilderness where reflection quickens. The wilderness where discipline begins. The wilderness where the great questions—freedom, immorality, God, all—may touch us. The wilderness where there is quiet, space, silence. I invite you this Lent to journey with me, one beggar among others, to travel from sensation to reflection.

We begin this morning, taking stock of our sources (or media?) of authority, upon which we shall base our coming Lenten teaching. In the Gospel, Jesus hears Scripture, Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased. That is Psalm 2: 7. You are meant to recognize the divine voice echoed here from Holy Scripture. In the Gospel, Jesus honors tradition—baptized by John in the Jordan. In the Gospel, Jesus is driven by the spirit, the breath of God, the spirit of truth, reason and reasoned. In the Gospel, Jesus struggles, and suffers, he experiences depth and height, as do we: tempted, endangered, in need of angelic support. These are the sources of authority on which the gospel is proclaimed—scripture, tradition, reason, experience.

Your move today from sensation to reflection involves a recognition of sources for authority.

Tread lightly. Your love of Christ shapes your love of Scripture and tradition and reason and experience. You are lovers and knowers too. We are ever in peril of loving what we should use and using what we should love, to paraphrase Augustine. In particular we sometimes come perilously close to the kind of idolatry that uses what we love. We are tempted, for our love Christ, to force a kind of certainty upon what we love, to use what is meant to give confidence as a force and form of certainty. It is tempting to substitute the freedom and grace of confidence for the security and protection of certainty. But faith is about confidence not certainty. If we had certainty we would not need faith.

 

Wilderness Bath

Here is a Lenten question: Did you ever feel the need to take a spiritual bath? The layers of accumulated anxiety and estrangement call out for removal. A little steam, a filling tub, some quiet and peace, moments of grace. Did you ever feel the need to take a spiritual bath?

Even as the early church had need and experience to remember Jesus as the one who first experienced our communion, in the last supper, so for the same communal reasons, this early legend of Jesus’ baptism met the needs of the primitive church, and so, we may hope, shall meet our own. They too knew alienation. They too estrangement. They too sin and ennui. All that separates you from yourself, from others, from God—this is sin.   All that separates you from your best hope, the real hope of others, and the divine hope in which the world was made—this is sin. The early church found it soothing, healing to be immersed in the water of baptism, and to think of Jesus as the first baptized. Ours is not a biographical account, but a story of faith.

Surely, with many generations fore and aft, the early church would have remembered the cleansing holiness of the ten commandments, as they read these words.

Likewise, with two thousand years of saints to follow, this same church would have remembered the cleansing compassion of the beatitudes.

When they heard the splash of water, they might have thought again of Noah, and the flood. The promise of God’s care, to follow such hurt, they would have seen again in the rainbow: I establish my covenant with you and your descendents after you…This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all generations. I have set my bow in the clouds…the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.

When they heard the banishment to the wilderness, the school of experience, of hard knocks, to which every great religious leader from Moses to the Buddha has been sent, they would have recalled another blessing. The blessing of nature in the rainbow would be matched by that of experience in the Psalms. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long…Do not remember the sins of my youth…according to your steadfast love remember me…

When the moment of baptism came, John holding Jesus, both of the prophetic tradition, both of a certain courage and calling, both to have tragic fates, both to know and need each other—brothers, really—they would have had something to say, now, a blessing of an emerging sacrament. Every sacrament and every symbol need interpretation. For that reason, the whole of 1 Peter is written as an essay on baptism. Remember what the letter says: And baptism, which the ark of Noah prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience. Baptism—an appeal to God for a good conscience. How timely.

When the story, the faith legend of Jesus’ baptism was then told, in a small Mediterranean church, they again would meet their Lord. As do we. Jesus, from Galilee. Jesus, baptized. Jesus, related to John. Jesus, spirit touched. Jesus, beloved. Jesus, tested and tempted. Jesus, tough against wilderness and beasts and Satan. Jesus, guarded by angels. Jesus, preacher. Jesus, preaching good news. Jesus, whose time has come.

 

Wilderness Failure

Jesus particularly meets us today in supplication. In supplication, today, we feel or murmur or mutter, perhaps through clenched teeth, a prayer of supplication, a confession of failure:  Free our land of horrid, tragic, gun violence. How will this happen? We see no easy way.

But then our minds begin to move. Gun violence is a matter of public health. You have lifted your voice in chorus with those who attack gun violence not as an issue of individual right or freedom, but as an issue of public health and safety. We have had success in other improvement to public health. Reductions in death from smoking. Reductions (some) in death from drinking. Reductions in highway deaths.   Here is a different evil, so we shall need to think differently.

How shall we do so?

Maybe we shall restrict the sale of ammunition: keep and bear arms all you want, but ammunition we will lock down. Maybe we shall make those who make money on gun sales pay a stiff price for every misuse of their product. Maybe we shall hold households and home insurance responsible for mayhem that emerges from a house.

Congress regularly supports the so-called gun lobby, fearing to contradict its champions. Oddly, though, they are mistaken about what Americans, and particularly gun owners, think about gun restrictions and gun safety. They mistake the faux representative voice for the people’s voice. ‘85% of Americans and 81% of gun owners favor gun show background checks, which Congress rejected…Since 1960 1.3 million Americans have died from fire arms, which amounts to 80 gun deaths a day.’ The broad swath of the American people, in harmony with the Book of Hebrews, offer prayers of supplication for an angelic deliverance.   And here and there, there is change: ‘In 1970 ½ of all US homes had guns. Today it is less than 1/3.’ Our tendency to conformity, our over-eager deference to authority, and our too willing adaptation to imposed roles weaken us over against these and other challenges. Yet…

 

You have agency and influence. As you pray. As you think. As you speak. And as you vote. You have power, agency and influence. You cannot see the unforeseen future. You do not know what may, against all current expectation, suddenly emerge. Decades ago we lived in a little cottage parsonage in Ithaca, once inhabited by Pearl Buck, she of THE GOOD EARTH, while her husband took a degree at Cornell. It was fifty yards from Fall Creek, a good size river, frozen solid for the cold months. No amount of waiting and watching would shift that ice, and for those years it was Easter, usually, before anything happened. Just block ice, wind, snow, cold, silence. No movement. And then, with no warning, like a sudden angel thunder from heaven itself, in a great cataclysmic whoosh, all that ice would pound down the hill into Cayuga Lake, in ten minutes. It was terrifying to hear, and to see. What combination of underwater thawing and freezing, what combination of sun and shadow, what combination of tiny little changes finally ushered in that apocalypse? Who can say. But you never know when change, even big change, may well arrive.

 

Wilderness Faith 

We now receive Jesus. Because we are loved, we can love. Marsh Chapel, you have been love for this community for many generations. What you have said and done, stood for and stood by, we now repeat, even as we kneel before God and unknown. In fact, I believe that if you were to write a creed together, it might sound something like this:

  1. God is love.
  2. Love is both mercy and justice, both compassion and holiness.
  3. Compassion is more important than holiness.
  4. God loves the world (not just the church).
  5. The church lives in the culture. The church lives in the culture to transform it. (Not above it to disdain it, not below it to obey it, not behind it to mimic it, not before it hector it).
  6. The church is the Body of Christ.
  7. Christ is alive. Wherever there is way, truth, life…
  8. Life is sacred.
  9. Life is a sacred journey to freedom.
  10. The Bible is freedom’s book.
  11. The Bible is a source, not the source, of truth
  12. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath
  13. Women and men, people all people, need each other
  14. There is a self correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe.
  15. God’s love outlasts death.

Let us bring who we are to this moment, remembering the wilderness desire, theology, Scripture, bath, failure, and faith, along with promises and gifts of faith, and trusting in Almighty God to heal and sustain in this new season.

Merton wrote, I was to become conscious of the fact that the only way to live was to live in a world that was charged with the presence and reality of God (SSM, 208)

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

The Bach Experience

Sunday, February 11th, 2018

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Mark 9:2-9 

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Hill

Last Sunday our worship service of Word and Table conclude with the singing of an old hymn, written by a Massachusetts minister J. Edgar Park, who was President of Wheaton College, Massachusetts. He was born in Belfast, Ireland, March 7, 1879 and had his theological studies at New College, Edinburgh, The Royal University, Dublin, and Princeton Theological Seminary. His principal pastorate was in the Second Church of Newton, Congregational, West Newton, Massachusetts, which he served 1926 to 1944, going from there to the Presidency of Wheaton. He was the author of many books, including one of the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale.

You may not in fact remember the hymn we sang, to conclude our service, which is not any detriment to or criticism of you. The hymn title is ‘We Would See Jesus’, number 256 in our venerable Methodist Hymnal, which Hymnal is about to be revised this coming year with all the attendant disagreements, disputes, and ultimately, we trust, a happy and useful outcome for the use of singing Methodists near and far. One of our own faculty here at Boston University is a member of that committee.

The hymn fits our readings from Mark, and fits Epiphany, the season out of which we come, and traces the ministry of Jesus.

We would see Jesus, lo! His star is shining, above the stable while the angels sing

There in a manger on the hay reclining, haste let us lay our gifts before the King 

We would see Jesus, Mary’s Son most holy…

We would see Jesus, on the mountain teaching…

We would see Jesus, in his work of healing…

We would see Jesus, still as of old he calleth ‘Follow me’… 

In a few simple verses, the hymn traces the earthly ministry of Jesus, birth, growth, teaching, healing, calling.   This is the Jesus most of us most of the time are most comfortable with, and the Jesus, one could add, that most seminarians prefer to study, the Jesus of parables, of the lilies of the field, of the various healings, of the preachments in valley and on mountain—in short, the human Jesus. This is the Jesus known and heard in Matthew, Mark and Luke, with some occasional exceptions, like today’s reading. We can fairly readily approach this Jesus, we would see him as the hymn says, in the verses and chapters of the Synoptic Gospels.

Now pause, for a moment, and hear again the Gospel today, which is none of this. The Mark 9 Transfiguration is like an invasion of the gospel of John into an other-wise happy earliest Gospel of Mark. A high mysterious mountain. Strange choices about booths. The sudden acclamation of Elijah and Moses. A blinding light. MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM. The Holy. Suddenly not just a teacher or preacher or healer or rabbi, but…This is the Jesus of your life and death. Death makes us mortal, facing death makes us human. This is the Jesus of whom it is said, ‘My Lord and My God’. This is the Jesus to whom we turn in the Lenten challenges, whether or not they come in Lent, the Lord of life and death.   So, our Charles Wesley hymn, in a few moments, is quite different: Christ whose glory fills the skies, Christ the true the only light, Sun of Righteousness arise, triumph o’er the shades of night, Dayspring from on High be near, Daystar in my heart appear

It is this holy grace, this gracious holiness, to which we turn our ears, not our eyes, on the Sundays, like this one, upon which we hear the Gospel as spoken, but also as sung: A day is coming that will judge the secrets [of humankind], Before which hypocrisy may tremble. For the wrath of His jealousy annihilates What hypocrisy and cunning contrive.

                        Dr. Jarrett: how shall we listen, this morning, with particular and careful attention, to today’s cantata?

 

Jarrett

 Thank you, Dean Hill. At first read, the texts of today’s cantata surely align more with the MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM depiction you’ve just described. Cantata 136 warns of the day of judgement when our own hypocrisy and cunning-ways threaten to undo us. The bass soloist tells us that the heavens themselves are not clean, and that all are struck by spots of sin, brought upon us by Adam’s Fall. These depictions endure for much of the cantata, until, mercifully, we are reminded that Jesus’s wounds cleanse and redeem. In the final chorale we sing that even a drop of the Blood of Jesus can cleanse the entire world. The image is one of humankind ensnared in the Devil’s jaws, set free and at liberty by the blood of the lamb.

Bach’s anonymous librettist was surely trying to amplify the themes of the lessons heard earlier in the Leipzig service — for Bach these were lessons from Romans and Matthew. They call the Christian to live according to the spirit, not the flesh, along with an admonishment to beware false prophets and hypocrisy. These are the subjects of the internal movements – two recitatives, an alto aria, and a duet for tenor and bass. Bach highlights a few words here with extended melismas for the singers: erzittern or tremble referring to the sinner on judgment day, vernichtet or annihilate describing the wrath of God’s jealousy. In the duet, as if to number our spots of sin, Flecken is set as a melisma. Later in the duet the redeeming Strom or stream of Jesus’s blood is similarly treated, all of which offer aural anchors throughout these two remarkable movements.

A typical cantata libretto draws on several sources for texts. The internal movements were most often newly written poetic texts by someone in close working relationship with Bach. It’s in these texts we find the most theological exegesis worked out. Most often the cantatas concluded with a Chorale by one of the famous Lutheran hymn writers, frequently by Luther himself. The opening movements were typically direct quotes of Scripture, drawing on the Psalms more than any other Biblical source. Bach follows this exact design in Cantata 136, opening his cantata with the 23rd verse of Psalm 139: Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts. In the German: “Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz; Prüfe mich, und erfahre, wie ich’s meine.” Modern German translations of the Luther Bible replace erfahre with erkenne. Regardless, listeners can recognize these four imperative verbs that begin each line, imploring God’s true examination of our inmost thoughts.

Hill

I rely with gratitude on John Ashton, a great NT scholar, to keep the Jesus of Mark and also the Jesus of John, who makes an invasive appearance here in Mark 9, both before us. Both Christmas and Easter. Both Life and Death. Both teaching and crucifixion. Both healing and resurrection. Jesus both human divine, both Mark and John, both Mark 1 and Mark 9.   Both ‘We would see Jesus’ and ‘Christ whose glory fills the skies’. Both last Sunday and this Sunday.

No doubt the Synoptic Gospels held their place; but for them Christianity might well have rapidly vaporized into some form of speculative Gnosticism. It did not; the parables of the kingdom and the Sermon on the Mount continued to be regarded as indispensable elements of the Christian message, and—more importantly—the Jesus who preached them remained ever present to the Christian consciousness. 

To most modern eyes the portrait painted by the Synoptists is both both simpler and more attractive.   It is the portrait of a man with a special relationship with God, whom he addresses by the intimate name of Abba, Father…He was a man of his time; his teaching and preaching, even his healing miracles, can readily be placed in the context of first century Palestinian Judaaism. If he were suddenly to reappear as he really was he would no doubt seem to us, in Albert Schweitzer’s phrase,’ a stranger and an enigma’, but a recognizable human being nonetheless.

Not so the Johannine Christ (we add, here, not so the Christ of the Transfiguration). He does not belong to this world at all: it is almost true to say that he enters it with the purpose of leaving it. He is a pre-existent divine being whose real home is heaven. He enters an alien world with an unprecedented confidence and assurance, knowing who he is, where he comes from, and where he is going…He orchestrates his own passion…he can read Pilate’s heart. There is about him no trace of uncertainty. Master of his fate, captain of his soul… his head bloodied but unbowed, he never had to confront either the fell clutch of circumstance or the bludgeonings of chance. (Ashton, 1991, Understanding the Fourth Gospel, 239)

 Well beloved, that is, there is a full and deep mystery here, an unfathomable, an uncanny deep, right here in our Gospel, of the sudden appearance of a Jesus who would fit well in John, but not so well in Mark. And is that not, for us, come Sunday, this Sunday, in the hearing of the word and music, a part of our needed reminder, a reminder about the limits of life, about the mystery of life, about the God gift of life, given us well beyond our capacity to understand it? Perhaps we can carry from the beauty and holiness of these precious gospel and musical moments, a sturdy reminder of the great strangeness, the great mystery, the great, tremendous, yes, unearthly voice and presence and grace of our Lord, who comes to us, this morning, interrupting the rest of his more human appearance in Mark, with this scene befitting John, and interrupting our forgetfulness about mystery. In that spirit, let us pray:

Gracious God, Holy and Just

Thou from whom we come and unto whom our spirits return

Thou source of Wisdom, fount of Wisdom, well spring of saving Wisdom

Make of us, we pray, an addressable community

That we might listen

That we might hear

That we might understand

That we might listen, hear and understand before we analyze or criticize

Make of us, we pray, an addressable community

Make of us, we pray, a benevolent community

That we might polish our proclivity for the second thought, the second try, the second chance

That we might expect to uncover a latent goodness, latent in others and in ourselves and across this great, though troubled, globe

That we might become good in ways that become the Gospel

Make of us, we pray, a benevolent community

Make of us, we pray, a soulful community

Alive to spirit, alive to love, alive to grace

Take away from our souls all strain and stress

Let us breathe again, breathe deeply, breathe the soulful breath of life

Make of us, we pray, a soulful community

For we have gathered and bear witness to Jesus, our beacon not our boundary.

-The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean. & Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

 

 

 

A Winter Communion

Sunday, February 4th, 2018

Click here to listen to the full service

Psalm 147

1 Corinthians 9

Click here to listen to the meditations only

Preface

‘Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same’.

So, Abraham Heschel, whose mighty labors to interpret the Hebrew Prophets were drenched themselves in tears—the joyful tears of adoration, the bitter tears of confession, the heartfelt tears of thanksgiving, the worried tears of supplication.

Prayer is at the heart of communion, especially a winter communion, and its languages are the tongues of adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication.

‘Pray without ceasing’, we are taught in the 5th chapter of the earliest document in our New Testament, 1 Thessalonians.  Without ceasing.

We pray in silence before our worship begins, come Sunday.  Here, in this sacred hour, we set ourselves for the week to come, and set before ourselves what we hold dear, and all in which we are dearly held.

Then: Monday noon in meditation, Monday evening in Compline, Wednesday morning in theological community, Wednesday evening in communion, Thursday noon, both in sanctuary silence and then over an outdoor common table, and privately, meal by meal, morning by morning, we pray.

Prayer is to sit silent before God.  Prayer is to give utter attention.  Prayer is to think God’s thoughts after God.  Prayer, like a poem, is ‘a momentary stay against confusion’ (Frost).   Prayer is our winter communion.

Adoration

A language learned in prayer is that of adoration.   Here is the tongue of aspiration, delight, hope, imagination, wonder and praise.   In the dim-lit daily world, adorational language can be hard to hear, hard to find, for it is the exuberant utterance of ‘why not’?, of ‘how about?’, of ‘oh my’!, sentences concluding in question marks and exclamation points, more enchantment than disenchantment

Our gospel reading, at heart, is an aspiration, a high hope about human being, human loving, and human life—especially about healing.

Here in Mark 1, the early church remembers forty years later a very high view, an aspirational hope for human healing.   A prayer in aspiration that demons–begone! That upon this earth there yet might be—real friendship, real fellowship, real love, real marriage, the reality of the union of hearts, for which we are made.  For a hint of the eternal, a glimpse of the divine, a glimmer of joy without shade.   How we need that hint in our time of humiliation.  How we need that height in our culture of degradation.

All this takes time and practice. Our aspirations take the support and help of a community to last.

So, in the same breath, and in the same paragraph, the Jesus of Mark’s gospel, and the Lord of Mark’s community, heals the sick, and offers their innocence (not their ignorance) as aspiration.   Innocence is not Holiness.  Holiness comes after Innocence, in the aspirations known both in celebration and in defeat.  Behold Jesus lifts them, lifts us, in his arms.

Hence, a few weeks ago we did sing, ‘Come Let Us Adore Him’.   There is a prayer, a prayer in a wonder-land.  What do you adore?  Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.  Where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.

Our January preachers, with their manifold winter gifts, foretold it:  remember your baptism, behold plenty good room, save what you love, adore restoration not destruction.

So we sing a hymn each Sunday.

Adoration.  A language of prayer.

Confession

A language learned in prayer is that of confession.  Such a dialect is much needed, in our time, in our generation.  Contrition, compunction, regret, and lament.  “I am sorry”.  “Forgive Me”.

You probably one day suddenly realized the power of confession.  Bishop James Matthews once said, in a memorable sermon, that he came to a day when he just wanted to write down in a list his most memorable shortcomings. (I was thinking of him the other day, visiting our own C Faith Richardson, now 102 years of age, who was his secretary).  He wrote down his mistakes and his regrets.  His regretful mistakes and his mistaken regrets.  That he did, and tossed the list into the fire, and resolved to live a great good life unrestrained by what was past.  “I gave the list to God and to the fire”, he said, “and I headed out into the future”.  Then he added:  “I’m sure you all have done the same, one way or another”.  I wasn’t so sure we all had, but I basked in the confidence—in the living pardon—of his confidence in us.

We depend on this reminder of our fragility.  It keeps us from becoming naïve about the fragility all around us.  Especially the disguised fragility of beloved institutions.  Many churches are one decade  away from demise.  Some countries are one government away from demise.  Our schools, halls of government, businesses, families—all these are far more fragile than they sometimes seem.  They take constant tending, mending, and befriending.   They take daily, careful leadership.  And when over time the fabric begins to fray, devastation may ensue.  Institutions, like people, are nourished by attention to small things. ‘Yard by yard, life is hard.  Inch by inch, it’s a cinch’.

So we offer confession, KYRIE ELEISON, each Sunday.

Confession.  A language of prayer.

Thanksgiving

A language learned in prayer is that of thanksgiving.  My friend says that all birds are either robins or non-robins.  Well, the prayer book of the Bible is the Book of Psalms, and in that same oversimplified way, the psalms are either laments or thanksgivings, and there are more of the latter.  So today the psalmist is singing aloud a song of thanksgiving.

We know gratitude in hindsight.  Thanksgiving is the gift of the rear view mirror, of real retrospective.  We learn, and we grow.  But as Ralph Sockman repeated, and we now with him, ‘The larger the body of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery that surrounds it”.

Eucharist is a word that means thanksgiving. It is the marrow this morning of our winter communion. Our Eucharist is a thanksgiving in remembrance and in presence.  Eucharist is a thanksgiving in remembrance of our Lord Jesus, his ministry of preaching, teaching and, today, especially healing, his death upon the cross, and his radiant resurrection, our beacon and life.  Our Eucharist is a thanksgiving in presence, an announcement of the divine presence, the real presence of God, here and now, in the humblest of forms.  Eucharist means thanksgiving.

In the humblest of forms.

In the winter of 1982 the Maundy Thursday Holy Communion service was scheduled to occur in the sanctuary of the larger of the two churches, a two-point charge on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, two churches that shared a minister.  And perhaps not too much else.  In fact, to gather the two into one, in communion, was a rare event, with or without the sacrament.  But Maundy Thursday was generally lightly attended, and, for once, all agreed to share the service, one congregation as host and one as guest.  Notice the closeness, the kindred etymology of those to words, host and guest.

Well.  The boiler died in the host sanctuary sometime that day, or perhaps the day before, though its demise was not noticed until about an hour before the service, noticed by freezing choir members there to practice.   In those ancient days there was no mode or media to announce the dilemma, and relocate.  So, after some consider, it was decide to move the service next door into the Methodist Parsonage.  You knew this was the parsonage because of a sign on the porch saying so.  This was an expansive if drafty country house, with two large living rooms, one a parlor with the piano, and the other with couches and chairs, and a large dining room and big country kitchen.   Putting the coats on the porch and the children upstairs, we conjured that we could fit the light Lenten attendance.   Sometimes you generalize, sometimes you specialize, and sometimes you improvise.  A Trustee sat on the piano bench to turn hymn pages for the pianist.  It was crowded.  The children behaved upstairs, at least at the start.  Later you could hear them rustling to run from east to west, giggling as their feet sounded like a small airplane landing nearby.  Then quiet again.

Two churches of people who did not regularly sit together, of an evening, by historical accident and the ingenuity of some lay leaders, sat cheek to jowl.  There was good close singing, in four parts, with the choir dispersed into the community.  There was a warmth quite welcome at 10 below zero outside.  At the time of communion all slowly moved from parlor to living room to dining room into the kitchen to serve and be served.  And at the end a long full silence filled the house.   A long silence, that is, full of thanksgiving.

Thirty-eight years is about the distance in time between the ministry of Jesus and the writing of Mark.  The memory sifts to hold onto what matters, counts, lasts, has meaning.  Of all the worship services in those years, from Christmas to Easter to Confirmation, the one most remembered is the crowded household communion, and the silence, and the thanksgiving.

If you are wondering how to pray, start with a word of thanks, a thanksgiving, a generous recognition of a cause of gratitude.   You will not have far to look.

Sing to the Lord with Thanksgiving, Psalm 147.  I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.  1 Corinthians 9.

So we read a psalm each Sunday.

Thanksgiving.  A language of prayer.

Supplication

A language learned in prayer is that of supplication.   We name what we need.  Seek and you will find.  Knock and the door will open.  Ask and it shall be given.  Not always.  Not frequently.  Not in a timely way.  But…

You don’t easily get what you don’t name as needed.

In supplication, today, we feel or murmur or mutter, perhaps through clenched teeth, a prayer of supplication. How will this happen?  We see no easy way.

In supplication, we are reminded of who we are and whose we are.  Supplication, the honest statement of what we need, the honest desire to return to a deep personal faith and an active social involvement, against all manner of winds blowing against, helps us build the future, a good future.  Prayer is a kind of prop.

Emily Dickinson had her occasional happy moments and happy thoughts and choice, true words of thanksgiving (amid darker hues aplenty to be sure):

            The Props assist the House

            Until the House is built

            And then the Props withdraw

            And adequate, erect,

            The House support itself

            And cease to recollect

            The Auger and the Carpenter-

            Just such a retrospect

            Hath the perfected Life-

            A past of Plank and Nail

            And slowness-then the Scaffolds drop

            Affirming it a Soul.

 

So we offer our common prayer every Sunday.

Supplication.  A language of prayer.

Coda

‘Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same’.

Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent, and are in love and charity with your neighbor, and intend to lead a new life, following after the commandments of God, come, draw near in faith, and take this Holy Sacrament, this prayerful winter communion, to your lasting comfort.

 

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.