Merton and Sacrament

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John 2

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Merton and Sacrament

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 Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

 

 

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