Archive for March, 2018

Sunday
March 18

Merton and Vocation

By Marsh Chapel

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John 12:20-33

Click here to listen to the meditations only

‘If anyone serve me, he must follow me, and where I am there my servant shall be also’. (John 12: 26)

Graham

One’s sense of calling develops over a lifetime.  Vocation can emerge apart from religious distinctions, often outside inherited personal or spiritual boundaries.  In that way, as Thomas Merton reminds us, vocation is the essential and quintessential ecumenical gift, or charism, or grace.  This Lent reminds us of courage, gratitude, spirit and gladness—the nourishment you will need to survive and prevail into the next decade.

To begin, though, this season of March, not Marsh, madness recalls that in 1987 our Rotary Club in Syracuse, which doubled as a cheering section for the college basketball squad, was in misery.  By just a single point, a last second basket, Syracuse had lost the NCAA championship to Indiana, a day that will live in infamy.  We began the next Monday’s Rotary meeting as usual with a prayer, memorably offered that day by Judge Schultz: We know Lord that we learn most from our troubles, and from our defeats.  We accept this and will try to hold fast to your presence, even in the face of (now here the prayer began to turn sideways—it happens in sermons too!) of unfairness, in the face of bad officiating, in the face of the unspeakable behavior of a chair throwing coach of the opposite team whom I will not mention Lord in prayer by name, in short, we bow before you and accept what has happened.  We don’t always have to win…BUY WE DO DEMAND JUSTICE. Oh, and, uh, AMEN.

A couple of springs later, in 1989, the Rev. Billy Graham spoke at our club, its fiftieth anniversary, following a Graham revival in the Carrier Dome.  I offered the prayer that day, and he said (and I should have noted this in my journal to save this memory for preaching at Marsh Chapel in March of 2018), ‘that was a fine prayer, Rev.Hill.’  He was about 3 or 4 inches taller than I, quiet, gracious and a kindly presence.  And he sure knew what he was talking about regarding prayer.  Of course, in that club we had a well-established tradition of pious and heartfelt prayer already, as Judge Schultz’s prayer did attest: WE DO DEMAND JUSTICE.  My sister, then Vice President and Corporation Counsel at Oneida Silver, gave him a beautiful silver tea tray (which unfortunately was overshadowed by the wife of the owner of Stickley Furniture who gave him a sofa).  These will BOTH go nicely in our home, he graciously responded.

The congregation was of two minds about whether to support the Graham crusade.   I still see the hurt in the eyes of those who felt deeply and strongly that doing so validated Graham’s support of the war in Vietnam, his support of Richard Nixon, his particular form of Calvinism (his conservatism, his audio-taped anti-Semitic remarks (for which he did apologize) and his Unitarianism of the second person of the Trinity.  A few left that vibrant growing church when we decided to support the cause.

Anyway, we chose to participate.  As a theological liberal and a Methodist, to me Graham’s theology made little sense.  But right down the street, right across from the parsonage, on a cold winter night, 80,000 people would be singing hymns, some of our favorites:  In the Garden; Just as I am; Great is Thy Faithfulness; How Great Thou Art.  Catholics, Orthodox, Protestant and Free Church people would work together to bring a little revival, a little salt, to the salt city of Syracuse.  There would be a call to decision to lead a Christian life.  Some would respond visibly and some not, some invisibly and some not, and some would regret the one and some the other, and some not.  And there would be a 500-voice choir (I comment not at all on the notes sung).  It was right in our neighborhood.  Walking distance.  You know what?  It was great and great fun.  I would sooner work with that organization than with most of the denominational boards and agencies I have known.  The Graham people were honest and kind.  They said a thousand times:  go to church on Sunday.  Plus, as much as I love basketball, a Dome full of simple hymns sung from the heart by 80,000 (and a 500-voice choir) made me really smile.

So, when the Boston Globe called last month to ask for a Billy Graham memory, I told them this:  In 1989 the Graham committee promised city pastors that the names of those people who came forward in the crusade, would be given, for follow up and follow through, to the churches in the city, neighborhood by neighborhood.  I am not sure I fully trusted this.  But a week later a big box of names came to the church office.  They were not from the campus and faculty side of our neighborhood, in the main; they were not from the student and bohemian side of our neighborhood, in the main; they were not from the corporate and civic leadership side of our neighborhood, in the main.  They were from down the hill, in the projects, the 1960’s urban housing that we had tried for five years in vain to engage.  And now we had name after name, and an expected standing invitation, and a way to visit on the sixth floor, and an entrée for meals on wheels, and an invitation list for Vacation Bible School, and a way to set up midnight basketball, and get to know some new friends, some of whom joined in for worship, because, on that cold winter night in the full Carrier Dome, they heard the word:  Go to church on Sunday.  (And I couldn’t help add: About his son I make no comment(:).

That is.  We listen and learn with a Roman Catholic monk named Thomas Merton, during Lent 2018.  Why?  Because.  You can learn a great deal from other traditions. Love your ecumenical neighbor as yourself. There are many ways of keeping faith.  Love your religious neighbor as yourself.  You may learn something in with and under the teaching of a neighboring denomination or pastor or congregation.  In my Father’s house, there are many rooms.  If you want a friend, be one; if you want ecumenicity, live it.  You may be ready for the soteriology next door.  Especially students, and young adults.  As this morning’s (how is that for timing!) New York Times, in an article on a Trappist Monastery, did put it:  Young adults may be drawn to (their) culture of mindfulness, stillness, and inward experience. Here is the way, in brief, Thomas Merton spoke of vocation:

Merton

Saints…(are) sanctified by leading ordinary lives in a completely supernatural manner. 62

Souls are like athletes that need opponents worthy of them. 92

The quietness and hiddenness and placidity of the truly good people in the world all proclaim the glory of God.  142.

The only way to live was to live in a world that was charged with the presence and the reality of God. 208.

That happiness which makes upper New York state seem in my memory to be so beautiful. 219

Virtue—without which there can be no happiness. 223.

The intellect is only theoretically independent of desire and appetite in ordinary, actual practice. 225

While we were sitting there on the floor playing records and eating this breakfast the idea came to me: ‘I am going to be a priest’. 277 (But: I had a kind of conviction:  I was going to be a Trappist).  366.

What was the difference between one place and another, one habit and another, if your life belonged to God, and if you placed yourself completely in his hands? 406

Thomas Merton this Lent has given us courage for the wilderness, gratitude for the Sacrament, the Spirit for contemplation, and, today, at the last, a gladness in vocation.

North Country

That same courage, gratitude, spirit and gladness we knew for decades in rural, agricultural, small town, country living, the people and voices and communion of which we cherish by heart.  Some of our graduates this May will themselves go and live for a while in the woods.  As did Thoreau.  Those fine seminarians with us this morning, finishing their three years of study, and about to be assigned to a pulpit on July 1, take with them our heartfelt love and encouragement, and our reminder that all vocational searching, and all astute theological reflection, is not confined to urban schools of theology.  We left our friend, last week, remember, riding her horse away from church in August of 1982.  She left a letter, acutely and rightly critical of the Methodism she was learning.  She was a premier wood carver, making light beautiful wood crosses for all families who suffered a loss.  Her spiritual, vocational, and theological reflection—out in the woods—compares her love of wood carving with her difficulty with religion.  The corrects, here, a mistaken, though well-intentioned, overemphasis in Methodism.  All the celebration in my own tradition of experience of God’s presence, if not tended, drown out the genuine and regular experience of God’s absence: doubt and faith are twin daughters of the divine.  Listen to this wood carving Native American lay woman, and astute theologian in her own right, from years ago, comparing wood carving and religion:

And as I was thus discovering why I liked working with wood, I thought why I do not like working with religion.  I would gladly give it up if it were not for this bothersome and rather uncontrollable compulsion to try jus at little longer, just one more time, just one more approach.  I have found with most things, given the proper tools, I can, with dogged patience and perseverance, attain a state near enough to perfection to be at least satisfying.

But religion, worst of all, because I cannot determine where to lay the blame.  Worst of all, because I do not know if I am striving for something that is unattainable for me, because of basic lack or insufficiency or incompleteness.  Or is my technique wrong—my approach—my tools—my plans—my information? As I work on a piece of wood, progress is made, I can see it, I can feel it, taking shape, and if I must begin again, I do, because I know in the end that piece of would will become what I want it to become—I will be satisfied, even with the nick of shame it will surely carry—it will be good enough.

But religion—unattainable faith—unfathomable understanding—untouchable God.  Even if he knocks, I feel, I have come to wonder if it is that my door has not been furnished with the normal and necessary attachment—a door knob.  For if I try—really try—it should get better—but it doesn’t.  If I begin again, determination will see it take shape, but it doesn’t.

I read just last week something in the small book, “Understanding the United Methodist Church” which I found disheartening.  But it said, in reference to ‘The Witness of the Spirit’:

“It means that the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer and does give him a first-hand assurance that he is a child of God”…and again…”United Methodists rejoice in the knowledge that God does certify unmistakably to each believer when his salvation is sure”…

Not hope.  Or think.  But know.  That is the perfection.  And I am not satisfied with less, nor am I able to make any progress toward that goal.  Nor can I throw it all away like a chunk of wood.  For it worries me like a dog worries a bare and useless bone, unwilling to spit it out and let it go.  Perhaps there is yet some marrow in it worth digging out.

I would, had I the choice, stick with the wood.

All of our traditions, including the perfectionism of Methodism, have some things that need, as this carpenter saw, to be sanded away. Paul Tillich had her answer:  doubt is a part of faith, and faith with no doubt is no faith at all but false faith.  I hope I was able to preach or teach or say that, so many years ago.   Seminarians will take their first pulpits July 1 of this year.  Maybe they think that real, true, hard, theological work, interpretative work, will not be needed or required in those small, rural, poor, less formally educated, agricultural, multiple appointments.  Maybe they think for all that they will need an urban pulpit, or a college community, or a smooth suburban lawn-scape, or an advanced degree.  Maybe they think there is no real ammunition in the verbal and spiritual rifles of first appointments or second appointments or poor churches that cannot pay their apportionments.  Maybe they think it won’t matter whether they read their Tillich or not, read their Ecclesiastes or not, read their Galatians or not, read their Merton or not.  It will.  Big league.  In the rough and tumble of pastoral life, the sturdiest vocation will be tested.  And should be.

Coda

This is a sermon with a question for you.  What is the color of your parachute, the shape of your sail, the grain of your wood, the you that is not what another says of you, the self at your own most self?  What is your vocation, your calling, your life as it most fully can become?  A little Lenten reflection, alongside a bright young Roman Catholic fellow who had to climb up a seven storey mountain to find his answer, may be a bit of help to each and all of us.

‘If anyone serve me, he must follow me, and where I am there my servant shall be also’. (John 12: 26)

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

Sunday
March 11

Merton and Contemplation

By Marsh Chapel

John 3:5-8, 14-21

Frontispiece

America is discovering the contemplative life. (TM, SSM, 453).

In the North Country (New York State just south of Montreal) I knew where I could find my people, mostly men, some women, in a mood to talk.  In the month of March, between milking times, you could find a circle gathered in the sugar house. The shadow of the roof made all seeing dim.  The steam from the boiling tank made of the hut a sauna, a steam bath, a welcome warming in the frigid March air. There is something so purely, and pleasantly sweet about the scent of the boiling sap:  have a donut, dip the donut, drink the syrup. Fathers and sons, aunts and nieces, talking. This is the month for north country, maple syrup…contemplation.

One of our dearest north country friends bore five children in a border farm house and raised them there, including the month or so of ‘sugaring’ each year.  The children danced in the steam and sweet air of forty gallons of sap becoming a gallon of pure Vermont maple syrup, brewed in New York State, but canned and bottled due east, to gain the Vermont mark-up.  She had been raised on an Indian Reservation in Washington State, was graduated from Bellingham College, and then scooped up by Senator Scoop Jackson to work in his Washington DC office, from 1968 to 1975 or so.  How she met her dairy farmer husband and moved to the banks of the frozen river St. Lawrence was never clear. One winter evening, with a light snow (6 inches) and some cold (10 below) she hosted our family at a lavish, gourmet dinner.  Her farm house, astride the barn, and 3 miles south of the Canadian border, had bare studs for the walls and an ancient linoleum flooring, warmed with a great hearth. The table sat their seven and our four and was laden: with pickles, with flowers, with simple china and silver, and with a king’s meal.  Ham lavish and delicious and presented with beauty. The vegetables of all varieties. Dessert, not just a pie, but some elegant tort. In the impoverished cold, she set a magnificent warm meal. It must have taken days to prepare. You can have all the money in the world, with shining golden buildings across the globe emblazoned with your name, and still make life ugly and tawdry and small.  Or, with her, having nothing, you can create beauty. She worshipped every Sunday, in season and out, with family or without. In the summer, with good weather, she rode her horse to church. She practiced contemplation of the Merton variety by writing long letters, hand delivered to the minister, after the benediction. In a fortnight of enforced hibernation this January, there emerged some time, digging through old boxes, to find those contemplative letters, to reread and rethink them.  One of them, in part, will conclude not this Sunday’s but next week’s sermon, which is set in some contrast, or at least in contemplative dialogue with today’s. We leave her just now, saddling her horse and heading home after church, August 1982.

Barry

In contemplation, many of you, this Lent, have been reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography, THE SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN.   As a way of honoring your communal contemplation of this, we quote here on of our congregation, David Barry, who writes, “This search for peace continued periodically for Merton, until the day he surrendered to it completely and decided to become a monk at twenty-six. Years earlier, still young and looking through a picture book on the French countryside, he was captivated by the beauty of the ruins of old churches. He felt drawn to the peace and solitude of these old places. He describes, “… my heart was filled by a kind of longing to breathe the air of that lonely valley and listen to its silence” (48).  The physical has awakened the spiritual…

“(One night Merton) had a powerful sensory experience. He felt the presence of his father and believed that his father’s spirit was trying to help him to escape from the directionless life that he had been living. “The sense of his presence was as vivid and as real and as startling as if he had touched my arm or spoken to me” (123).  Merton thought of the visit from his father as a “grace” (124). “I sat outside, in the sun, on a wall and tasted the joy of my own inner peace, and turned over in my mind how my life was going to change, and how I would become better” (125). Basking in the glow of the sun and remembered religious experience, he had found some peace at last.”

Merton’s Contemplation

Step by step, up the seven storey mountain, Merton finds his way.  One foot ahead of the other, or, better, on phrase ahead of the other, he plods along.  Howard Thurman had a sermon, not a famous one, but a good one, title, ‘Fear not the Fallow’.  It is sometimes in the quiet, snow covered, cold, non-descript patches of time as well as space, that something new and decidedly good is preparing to emerge.  But you cannot see it or hear it or sense it or feel it or touch it. Here, again, a leap of faith is needed. Listen to a few of Merton’s contemplative steps, phrases preparing him for the contemplative life, which begin to appear, in his autobiography, about 2/3 of the way through the book:

I was living.  I had an interior life, real, but feeble and precarious.  And I was still nursed and fed with spiritual milk. (303).

After Latin, it seems to me there is no language so fitted for prayer and for talk about God as Spanish (306).

It was as if I had been suddenly illuminated by being blinded by the manifestation of God’s presence (at Mass in Havana, following the performative language in the creed, at the Consecration) (311).

It was the light of faith deepened and reduced to an extreme and sudden obviousness (311).

God often talks to us directly in Scripture (321).

God began to fill my soul with grace in those days, grace that sprung from deep within me. (331).

O America, how I began to love your country! What miles of silences God has made in you for contemplation!  If only people realized what your mountains and forests are really for! (339)

And over all the valley smiled the mild, gentle Easter moon, the full moon I her kindness, loving this silent place (351).

Renewal of Spirit

Contemplation is attention to spirit.

A nominal belief is not much better than no faith at all.  Not a nominal belief in God, but an active awareness of God is born of the Spirit.  The Spirit creates an active awareness, actually at work in our life, influencing your thinking and deciding.  The Holy Spirit, God with us, is at work today, to refresh your heart and to quicken your life and to banish your fear.

Spirit is calling us today to move on from a nominal belief in God to the faith of a new birth, an active awareness, actually at work in our life, influencing our movements and our attitude.  Such a rebirth, the wind of God inspires. ‘Let us not doubt that by the Spirit of God we are re-fashioned and made new (people), though the way he does this is hidden from us’ (Calvin).

The Gospel of John is calling to you.  At every turn this strange, enigmatic Gospel is calling to you.  I mean you. To take up a step up in faith. To move up a step up in faith.  To receive a new birth in faith. Are you telling me you have gotten as far as you can in faith?  Nicodemus thought that until he saw he was wrong. The woman at the well said so, until she, her ownmost self, was revealed.  Those feasting on fish and loaves learned something else. Those in harsh debate with Jesus did as well. The man born blind, given sight, thought maybe all he would have was his illness and the pool of Bethsaida:  not so. And Lazarus, to top it all, was dead, down in the catacomb, four days. And a voice: Lazarus! Come out! The Gospel of John is calling to you. At every turn this strange, enigmatic Gospel is calling to you.  I mean you. To take up a step up in faith. To move up a step up in faith. To receive a new birth in faith. Are you telling me you have gotten as far as you can in faith? Take a step up.

And how so?

First. The new birth, a gift of the Holy Spirit, refreshes our hearts and makes us new people.  It is a pity that this passage, born from above or born anew, has so often been shouted out harshly, as a command.  You must. Yet the verb is passive, ‘be born’. You had little control over or management of your physical birth. You did not choose it, profess it, decide it desire it, plan it or supervise it.  Without your reasonable advice and comment, you were born. One wonders how it could possibly have gone off all right without our advice. Just so, affirms the Jesus of John, you are reborn by the Spirit, without which rebirth you will not see the area of God’s peace and love.  This is not a harsh word, but a gentle one, not a hurricane command but a light Lenten wind, gentle to refresh your heart today.

The leaves on your tree will never dance if they are forever sodden with the cold rain of the mind alone.  The mind rides the horse, but the power of Godly living, the horse herself, the great steed of the new birth, is the heart. ‘An entire change of heart as well as of life is necessary’ (Wesley).  The spirit is moving you from a nominal belief to a sense of transcendence, an active awareness actually at work in your life.

Second. The wind of Christ is gusting and blustering around your house now, quickening you and bringing you truly into the present moment.  Some parts of the past need to be blown away for a new day to dawn, for you. Let bygone hurts be bygone. One has been hurt by love, another by family, another by job, another by church, another by nature, another by accident, another by words, another by deeds.  As my friend wrote, ‘if everyone had a sign on his or her back listing all of their personal sorrows, we would all be kinder to one another’.  We can and should show each other our scars.  Pain shared is therapeutic. But let the dead bury the dead.  Pain is shared in order that it be buried, not given wings, be killed not perpetuated.  The Scripture warns us about the past, unfettered. It is no substitute for the present.  Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt for looking back. Jesus taught, ‘he who puts his hand to the plow and turns back is not fit for the kingdom of God’.   New occasions teach new duties. The Spirit is giving us another birth, shoving us away from nominal belief and toward an active awareness, actually at work in our life, influencing our thoughts and decisions.  The past is no substitute for the present. Nominal belief traps us in the past.

Third. The Spirit gives you rebirth as the Spirit banishes fear, and replaces fear with faith.  A nominal belief, a kind of superstition, only multiplies our fear. In faith, we have an active awareness of God in Christ, which is actually at work, influencing our thought and choice. “He who is born of the flesh fights to defend himself, looks hither and thither, employs his reason to make a living.  But he who is born anew reasons thus: ‘I am in God’s hands, who has preserved me and nourished me before in a wonderful manner: he will also feed and preserve me in the future, and save me from all sorrow and misfortune’.” (Luther).

Coda

A faith that takes you away from the adventure of life is a false faith.  You desire—and if you desire it one day you shall have it—a faith that sets sail on the adventurous sea of life, a faith that does not long lie in harbor or at anchor, a faith that lives freely, a faith that really lives, a faith willing to change, to risk, to move, to grow, to face life and to face death fearless and free.

It is faith you can ride to church on, and ride home on, and ride all week long.  So, saddle up, and ride back next week!

America is discovering the contemplative life. (TM, SSM, 453).

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

Sunday
March 4

Merton and Sacrament

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

John 2

Click here to listen to the meditations only

John 2

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

 

Scripture

Martin Luther taught daily devotions, morning by morning, to include recitation of the ten commandments, which we just heard, of the Apostles’ Creed, contours of which round out the service, and of the Lord’s Prayer, to be lifted in a moment.  To which, this morning, we append a mediation on John 2.

Right away, we sense something loose in the Scripture.  We are used to something ‘loose’, because day by day we know from our bones and ears that there is something loose in the universe, as Gardner Taylor used to say.  Yes, we believe in God, Maker of Heaven and Earth.  (That by the way in its creedal asperity is all Luther’s favorite creed says about God the Creator).  But along with the brute reality of all there is and all that is there, to honor both Plato and Aristotle, we know in our bones and ears that all this creation around us shakes, and rattles, and rolls, and has abiding in it something big and loose.  The Decalogue, come Lent, brings us up short.  Creation is one Christian doctrine, or set thereof.  And so is Fall. Creation, and Fall.  The goodness of Creation is shot through with the fallen-ness of Creation:  sin, death, meaninglessness, pride, sloth, falsehood, superstition, idolatry, hypocrisy.  Something loose, in the universe.  With blood soaked floors in public high schools far and public libraries near, we in tears do quietly nod.  We weep as we pray. What a world.  It is God’s world.  That’s creation.  It is a crummy world.  That is fall.  Somehow, by the gift of faith, in the light of Christ, we try to live with both.   Hence, Sacrament.

Part of what was shaking loose in the community of the Gospel of John echoes here in John 2.  There is a really odd way of speaking about the Jews in this Gospel.  ‘The Passover of the Jews was near’… That is a strange way of saying something, like…When the Fourth of July of the Americans was near…When the Christmas of the Christians was near…When the Patriots’ Day of the Bostonians was near…When the Spring Break of the College Students was near…When the Bastille Day of the French was near…The Passover of the Jews…Well, it is not like fifteen different religious traditions in antiquity or in modernity celebrate the feast of Passover.  I know of no Mormon Passover.  Nor of any alive among Southern Baptists.  Hindus, Muslims, and many others have marvelous traditions in festival, but no Passover.  So, even in this early passage, where the term, ‘the Jews’ carries an untypical, non-normal, frightfully odd meaning, the Gospel does not handle the term with ease, or grace, or courtesy.  Yes, John, here may be helping his Gentile readers with reminders about Judaism, its feasts, for instance.  But there is, as the Gospel unwinds, a fuller, and tragic manner of speech, here.  You think of Yankees fans mentioning those who have season tickets at Fenway, or the way we speak of them:  ‘Others’. You think of Robert E. Lee, referring to the inhabitants of Boston and other places due north of him as ‘those people’.  You think of a humorous play from a few years ago, in which one woman says something about men to three other women, one of whom responds, ‘Oh…them’.  There is a lurking animosity here, and behind that a great dark shadow, something loose in the universe.  Bishop Hapgood once said ‘the only factually demonstrable Christian teaching, about which there can be no doubt, is the doctrine of original sin’.   There is something loose in the universe.

And there is more that is loose, this morning.  Now you are keen Bible readers, so you know that normally in a Gospel the cleansing of the temple happens right at the end of the Gospel, just before the cross, and is the spark, the catalyst, or the cause of Jesus’ crucifixion. As in Matthew.  As in Mark.  As in Luke.  Well, here the writer has brought up the temple, with its cattle and sheep and doves, with its money changers and tables overturned, with its sheer public conflict right in the heart of ‘the Passover of the Jews’, has brought the temple right up to the very beginning of the Gospel.  This should teach us something.  A Gospel is a stylized memory, a preaching of the resurrection by way of reminiscence about Jesus, not a history nor a biography nor a deposition on the way to a legal brief on the way to an indictment.  You know this.  Even if you didn’t, you would know it now, because of what was read a moment ago: after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered…and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.  It is the resurrection that carries the Gospel and the Gospels, not the other way around. You could call it a saving reminiscence, embedded in the simplest of elements.  Resurrection precedes Gospel.  And all else.

By the way, along the way, in the reading of the Gospel of John, we pick up some sideways hints of what sort of community produced this sort of Gospel.  And one of the little hints, glimmering in the big dark, is that this Gospel has a bone to pick with some folks it is close to, a bone to pick with, of all people, its close knit extended family, ‘the Jews’.  ‘The Jews’ then said, ‘this temple…’.  Please.  Who else at Passover in Jerusalem in 30ad was around to talk to?  Other than Jews?  Methodists?  Flat Earth Believers?  Methodist Flat Earth Believers?  Everyone in this scene is Jewish, from Jesus on up or on down.  You see.  There is something odd, something sliding around, something loose, something revealingly strange about the way this Gospel, including by the way, right here, in chapter 2, speaks of Jesus, of his family and friends, of the twelve disciples, of John the Baptist, of the earliest Christian church community, of Paul of Tarsus, and many, many others…all Jews.  Something else is going on here, and it is crucial for us, year by year, carefully to hear it.  NOTA BENE: It is likely, highly probable, that the author has in mind not ‘Jews’ in general, but, rather, some other familiar group, closer at hand, down the street, in the synagogue, out of which John and his small early church group of Jesus worshippers, have been exited, due to the, by Jewish standards, dire heresy of ditheism, and with whom they are engaged in something of a family feud.  You know.  Others. Those people.  Them. Those we oppose.  You cannot read merely with a flat nasal honkey reading any of the usages of the phrase, ‘the Jews’, in John.  And our failure, as Christians, as a religious community, our failure in teaching the Scripture rightly over centuries, right up to this morning, our failure to see and perceive and interpret and communicate about what is loose in this Gospel—its depiction of ‘the Jews’—has had monstrous consequences.  While the horrific historic tragedy of Christian antisemitism has more roots than those in this fourth Gospel, it has no deeper roots than these.

Those who wrote John in 90ad, who bowed before the Risen Christ, whose glory and magnificence and exaltation and divinity they had only dimly perceived for some time, and whom they had only painfully come to recognize as ‘My Lord and My God’, were coming out of an experience of odium theologicum, theological and religious sheer hatred, conflict, difference, with—well, with whom do you get angriest?—their family, their kin, their closest friends, their former prayer partners.  Let us pause for some contrition, lament, compunction, confession, this Lent, in the same year that we honored Elie Wiesel from this pulpit and across this University on September 17, 2017.

 

Merton

The advantage of our conversation this Lent with Thomas Merton, who died fifty years ago, sails into view here.  His autobiography is titled ‘Seven Storey Mountain’, and his lengthy, vital account therein, with one notable exception, explained in the Introduction,  gives full measure to his own experience of the fallen-ness of Creation.  On one hand, his journey courses through the most beautiful and culturally gracious spaces from his time, and, to some degree still, from ours.  Southern France, the Long Island Sound, London, Cambridge, Oxford, New York, Columbia (the University), Bermuda, and Upstate New York.  You could argue that his relative ignorance of New England is a failure.  But in his study and reading, as well as his travel and culture, he stays with the best.  All of it, finally, fails him, and, it must be emphasized, fails him not for his own failure to embrace, hold fast, honor, respect what is there and what there is.   His parents die young.  His brother dies before he can really know him as an adult.  His young friendships wither and fade.  He departs Oxford without a degree.  His various relationships with women, faintly even coyly recollected, provide no happiness.  His reading, apart from William Blake, disappoints.  His teachers, apart from Mark Van Doren, fall short. His inherited religious backgrounds in Quaker silence and Episcopal liturgy leave him empty and discouraged.  His critique of Protestant Christianity, as practiced, is scathing, but not for that matter unfair.  He mistakenly or ironically or both refers to Riverside Church as Rockefeller Church. But he finally comes home to Sacrament, he finds, finally, a home, in Sacrament.

This happens on a little side street in the Upper West Side of New York City, quite familiar to those of us who attended Union Theological Seminary.  Through a strange course of influences, he finds himself one hot August Sunday in 1938, sitting in a pew at Corpus Christi Catholic Church on 121st street.  From that very sanctuary, I weekly or bi-weekly saw my teacher, Fr. Raymond Brown, emerge, having said the Wednesday mass.  There was a time when most theologians were also ordained, and so pressed into service, when and as that was possible.  He would amble down the slight hill there in Morningside Heights, circa 1978, as we now remember in 2018, in black suit and white collar, and pause to talk, to check the progress of his advisee, to smile, and return to the intricacies of John 2, read a moment ago.

On that August morning, 1938, Merton was overcome by grace, by community, by prayer, by liturgy, by sermon, and by Host, so overcome that he stumbled out into the bright New York sunlight without receiving the sacrament.  He knelt next to a young woman, perhaps a fellow Columbia student, who was clearly and sincerely praying.

It has been forty years since I have stood on the steps of Corpus Christi on 121st street.  It seems a day ago, though.  This is the strange thing about time, about recollection, about the passage of time, about memory, about how close things are that nonetheless are at a great distance.  For Thomas Merton, his emergence from purgatory came in Sacrament.  May this be so, this morning, right here, just now, for you.  Here is the burden and the delight of ministry on, at, or near a University campus.  You just never know who may be coming home, now in Word, or now in Sacrament, in the very quotidian, utterly simple, spare, nothingness, really, of prayer, of worship.  Of Sacrament.  Touch helps, familiarity helps, music helps, some words help, repetition helps, taste helps.  There is a physicality that helps.  We understand God, if or as we do, in a ‘supermental’ way, as Cyril Richardson regularly put it.  In a supermental, sacramental way, we might say, today. In prayer.  Today: in Sacrament.

Like those who wrote John 2, Merton was astounded by the Height of Christ.  They began to see, once they saw.  And he began to see, once he saw. That is, once the resurrection glory, in the cross of Christ, gradually became clear to this Gospel of John group, once they began fully to realize who this Jesus was and is and was for them—both human and divine—then things began to fall into place. That is, once the resurrection glory, in the cross of Christ, gradually became clear to Thomas Merton, once he began fully to realize who this Jesus was and is and was for them—both human and divine—then things began to fall into place. And out of this drastic dislocation, in John, came a new religion (there is really no other way to put it), the Christianity of the Christ, which would then take wing in the second and third and fourth centuries, in direct dialogue with the terms set by John.  And out of this drastic sacramental dislocation, in Merton, came a new spiritual life, the Christianity of the Christ, which would then take wing in the next five decades, in direct dialogue with the terms set by the Sacrament.

 

Reminiscence 

On Thursday evening this past week, about 6pm, at the cooling end of a bright warm day, I walked slowly across the lawn here next to the Chapel, known lovingly as the BU ‘beach’.  As usual I was lost in some errant thought or three when I stepped forward, and found my foot resting on top of a scittering Frisbee.  Two kind students, far left and far right, called out, one saying ‘you can throw it to us’.  It was not clear—you need friendship to know inflection and implication in speech—whether that meant ‘please feel free to throw it’, or ‘against all appearances you seem like you might actually be able to throw it’, or ‘we are not playing some game where you have to leave the Frisbee where your right foot stepped upon it’.  It did not matter, because I had every intention of throwing it, long left or long right, and that was not premeditated deliberation.  I bent down, picked it up, and threw it, to the right, before any thinking.  It sailed out and up, and there was bemusement that it did so, so well, or even at all.

It took another block of walking before I was melted into emotion and reminiscence, brought out of that simple touch, that old feel, that muscle memory from fifty years and more ago, that gliding motion, so unfamiliar and yet so utterly familiar.   We spent all summer, in 1962, at age 8 throwing a Frisbee.  It is all we had, and all we needed.  You had breakfast, and were expected home, in that small college farm town, when the street lights came on.  You could come back for lunch and dinner if you wanted, but it was assumed someone would feed you.  The iron matriarchy that ran Hamilton NY decreed only one inviolable summer law:  get home, when the street lights come on, or else.  And so, ball and bat.  And so, Frisbee.  And so, decades later, this week, in a throw, the far off rural, agricultural, bucolic small town world, is become, by revelation, not only at hand, but in hand.

In Grace, God holds us by hand, at hand, in hand. Sacrament told Merton who he was.  Reminded him of who he was meant to be. Made sense of his memories! Brought a recollection, in touch and muscle and taste and sight and hearing, of God, incarnate in Jesus Christ.  You could call it a saving reminiscence, embedded in the simplest of elements.

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

 

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.