Grace and Peace

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2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Mark 4:35-41

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Grace opens our hearts. Peace stills our hearts.  May this summer 2018, for you, be a summer of Grace and Peace.

First, Grace

Grace opens our hearts.

A friend recalled Marilynn Robinson: “Theologians talk about prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it.  I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave—that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.  And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful.  It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing.”  (p. 246, Gilead,  paperback, 2006).

Let us make ourselves useful to the cause of grace.  Christ molds us, using our faults, even, He molds us in the cruciform of love.  We are not perfect, for we are not perfectible.  So, Shakespeare:  ‘They say best men are molded out of faults, and, for the most, become much more the better, for being a little bad’.

In her study of religious congregations, the subject of several of her award-winning books, Boston University Professor Nancy Ammerman says she’s witnessed two big changes. One is the diversifying of the American religious landscape, as immigrants have seeded the country with Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and other religions. The second is the growth of the “nones(the religiously unaffiliated). Their mushrooming is a response to dismay with both the growing politicization of religion (especially evangelical Christians linking up with the right), she says, and scandals such as Catholic clergy sex abuse. These developments prompted the rise of self-described spiritual-but-not-religious Americans. But “the bottom line of my research is that they’re probably neither,” she says. (April 25 2018, BU TODAY)

What does it mean, here and now, to be a Christian, to grow in grace and learn the arts, the habits of the spiritual and the religious?

In this week when we have watched as the welfare of 2300 immigrant children has been hanging in the balance, the question has a direct and sudden personal immediacy, even if in retrospect the moment has been amply foreshadowed in the last two years.  We hear the force of the Apostle’s warning, existential warning, not to accept the grace of God in vain.

Yes, you have reason and obligation to be concerned about the persons and personalities driving cultural and political formation, concerned about rhetoric and language and behavior, concerned about voice, and what voice and voices do speak for the land you love, the country you cherish. 

Yes, you have reason and obligation to be concerned about the policies, which emanate from those personalities and persons, those forms of rhetoric and language and behavior.  Government is just what we decide to do together.(D Patrick, 4/8/18) Policies  affecting now these 2300 children, and others that cause 5-year old children in Mississippi to lose their teeth due to lack of medical care, or policies that may ignite and incite the wreckage of warfare, or policies that enrich the few and impoverish the many by forging a hierarchy of zip-codes, or policies that forget the stranger in our midst, or policies that diminish some by means of race or gender or nationality, in particular:  about this you have reason and obligation, as Christian people, to be concerned.  You have no option about the concern, however you finally judge the policies.  You are free to run your marathon, in personal faith, but just make sure you see the social engagement all along the route, from Heartbreak Hill to Kenmore Square, that makes your run possible.  Grace begets a combination of deep personal faith and active social involvement.

Yes, you have full reason and obligation to be concerned about public good, about the forms of culture and civil society across our land, painstakingly built up over 250 years, that are not government and not politics, but are more fundamental and more fragile than both.   You have reason and obligation to be concerned about flagrant falsehoods and the celebration of untruth (contrary to regular assertion, there are by percentage fewer incidents of crime among immigrants, legal or undocumented, than in the rest of the population, for instance) about the denigration of women by callous mistreatment, about the mockery of the one hundred years of devotion to moral development by the Boy Scouts, about the disdain for courts of justice and the rule of law, about discourtesies to transgender people, about accommodation of white supremacists, about the rejection of diplomacy amid long standing global partnerships as a matter of course, about verbal and visual insults of Puerto Ricans, about forms of spurious half-baked nationalism, about the hourly shredding of the inherited role and influence of national leadership, about racist disdain, in scatological expression, for countries of color, about unapologetic, flagrant, unbiblical and public misuses of sexuality, about the dismemberment of public discourse centered on objective truth, about the un-enforcement of fair housing laws, and so on—in short, about all manner of the lowering of standards and forms of civil society.

Grace, the struggle to live by grace and not in vain, grace is the antidote to what is graceless.  Grace opens the heart, as Paul teaches the early Christians in Corinth.  Grace for persons, policies and public good.  Beloved:  You have not accepted the grace of God in vain.  You have accepted the grace of God in faith.  This very past week, in particular, have you accepted grace to lead you on and lead you home.  If grace can change the heart of John Newton, a slaver, who gave us our hymn, Amazing Grace, then grace can continue to open hearts, open minds, and open doors.   Our radio congregation, this week, has led the way. A message from Vermont hails the determination of the United Methodist Church to bring charges against a member, the current US Attorney General, who may have fallen under the graceless shadows of child abuse and racism (as the charge alleges).  (In forty years of ministry, this disciplinary paragraph has been used, in my experience, only once, prior to this week.   Charges are brought against clergy with regularity, but almost never against laity.  Rare, but there.) A message from Boston calls us to faith, to protest, and to compassion, by the grace of God.  A message from regular weekly congregant listeners in Georgetown Texas, calls on the Methodist Church to remember its own disciplinary teaching: The official United Methodist policy is stated clearly in the Book of Discipline: “We oppose immigration policies that separate family members or that include detention of families with children.” (Para. 162.H, emphasis added).   A message from New Haven Connecticut, and the campus of Yale University, admonishes us all to civility, recalling Hannah Arendt, to meet the graceless with grace: After a while, people come to “believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true,” wrote Arendt, the German-born philosopher, in describing how truth lost its way in her native land.  

Grace opens the heart. Here is what the Holy Scripture helps us see, regarding grace.  From Vermont, to Boston, to Texas, to New Haven…you are not alone.   You see and know the ongoing struggles, in grace for grace, by grace to undo the graceless, as did St. Paul in his frank accounting of his own struggles, in admonishment to the Corinthians.  In fact, we too will perhaps develop a catalogue of hurts, which then can be used to say, ‘You see.  I have been for you, into injury.  I am for you, even to hurt.  So now, maybe, I can speak to you’.  You see two years of past humiliation, and probably most of decade into the future, before the shadows fully lift, before the tide fully turns.  You have endurance (UPOMONE) which may be allowed to stand for all the rest in Paul’s catalogue of hurt. You have endurance, in part, because you know that you are not alone.  We have still in our mind, our memory, our heart, and our soul, as a people, a capacity for grace. 

Grace opens the heart to a little worldly wisdom, let us say:  I was once told the whimsical story of an Ethiopian tribe, Dorze by name, who, knowing that the leopard is a Christian animal, believe that like all good Christians in their region the leopard fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays; despite this belief, they are just as anxious to protect their herds and themselves from the leopard’s marauding on these days as on the other five!   Wise as serpents, innocent as doves…

So do one thing.  My grandmother had a sign on her kitchen door that read:  ‘Do one thing.  There. You’ve done one thing.’  Support one campaign, somewhere in the country where it makes a difference:  by acquaintance, by prayer, by encouragement, by giving.  For example.

Grace opens our hearts.

 

Second, Peace

Peace stills our hearts.

You have little trouble to understand why this wonderful passage, Mark 4:35, about the wind, and the sea, and the boat, and fear, and the dominical gift of peace, were so loved and cherished and remembered that Mark recalled and recorded the moment fully 30 years after the earthly ministry of Jesus.  Peace!  Be Still!  While this narrative is embedded in the career of Jesus’ preaching, teaching, and healing, its meaning is a moment of resurrection, of lasting peace, a foretaste of heaven, within the vicissitudes of earth.

The Gospel of Mark is heard, written, read and interpreted, after resurrection.  While the hearer knows the story, a passion narrative with a long introduction, as Wilhelm Wrede aptly said, the passion of the story is resurrection, in the light of which, after which, as a consequence of which, chapters 1-15, including our passage today, appear.  You read Mark 4 in the bright light of Mark 16.  You hear the account of the rocking boat in earshot of the account of the risen Lord.  Why are you afraid?  Have you no faith?  Perfect love casts out fear, does it not?  Which, that is, takes you back to April 1, to Easter.  What do you remember from Easter?  Do you recall Easter at all?  Hug Easter.  Life is meant to be lived in Easter, not Advent, not Lent, not Good Friday.

Remember an angel on the right, clothed in white.  Remember the Crucified, going before, continuously before.  Remember those great Greek Gospel words, you can hear their English cousins, tromos and ekstasis(trauma and ecstasy).  Remember that they were afraid, but that resurrection gave Mary Magdalene the strength to move out of her past, and Peter the strength to admit faithful disappointment. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The chance for.  The possibility of.  The hearing of.   

Now Markis not great literature, but it is Holy, it is Holy Scripture. It is not Plato, not Cicero, not Homer. Nor is the Greek of the gospel a finely tuned instrument.  It is harsh, coarse and common.  The gospel was formed, formedin the life of a community.  Its passages and messages were announced as memories meant to offer hope.  Its account of Jesus, in healing and preaching and teaching, all the way to the cross and beyond, is offered to a very human group of humans who are trying to make their way along His way.  The Gospel is a record of the preaching of the gospel.  To miss this, or to mistake this, is to miss the main point of the Gospel, and to miss the gospel.  It is in preaching that the gospel arrives, enters, feasts, embraces, loves, and leaves. It is in preaching that you hear something that makes life meaningful, makes life loving, makes life real.  It is in preaching that the Gospel of Mark came to be, as a community, over time, heard and reheard, remembered and rehearsed the story of Jesus crucified (his past) and risen (his presence).  We should not expect narrative linearity, historical accuracy, or re-collective precision here.  And in fact, we find none.  Let me put it another way around.  Most of the NT documents are, in one way or another, attempts to remember, accurately, the nature and meaning ofbaptism.  Well, Mark fits that description.  How are we to live with a measure of peace, one of the fruit of the spirit?

Peace stills the heart.  Here is a story about Barbara Bush, of blessed memory. Her pastor at her funeral remembered Barbara Bush’s playful peace.  He sat with her on the shore at Kennebunkport as she washed out her shoes in the rocky surf. A family came up and the mother said, ‘You look a lot like Barbara Bush.’  Barbara smiled and replied, ‘I get that a lot’.  Peace.

Peace stills the heart.  A consolation note, from one woman to another,  carried this line: “I know your grief.  Yet once my own grandmother died, in a way she was closer, more present, to me than in life, because neither of us was any longer twisted up in all those family conflicts.  She became more really herself to me”. 

Peace stills the heart. Years ago, here at BU, in an otherwise somewhat routine luncheon following a service for families of women and men in military service—I somehow think Sr. Olga hosted–a guest, the former national head of all Catholic Chaplains was introduced.  Unsolicited, he offered a few excellent, brief comments. In sum, he said his work in Washington had largely been about finding ways to tell people ‘no’ without hurting them, to tell them ‘no’ without permanently damaging them.  His example:  25 priests all feel called to be stationed in San Diego…but only 5 are needed.  I found the reflection deeply true of life, of ministry, of administrative service, and simply but clearly put, peacefully put, in a human, honest, responsible, mature and caring way.  His little speech carried truth that had been forged in the white heat of life, shaped and molded then by some semblance of reflection and prayer, and stated cleanly and  happily. I think everyone there will remember his words, when all other 22 speakers are forgotten. He spoke from his lived experience. And he spoke with in a spirit of peace.

In peace, then, in conclusion, here are some humble, practical summer suggestions, on the way of peace. To struggle for grace, over the long term, you will need the nourishment of an inner peace.  Find that peace in attentive embrace of what is beautiful and true and good.  Yes, that means regular Sunday worship, wherever you can find the true and good and beautiful, as much as possible in equal measure.  (For the Christian, worship is not optional, any more than is faithfulness in partnership or in disciplined giving). It also means morning prayer.  Follow in the morning, if you like, Martin Luther and recite each morning the decalogue, the creed, and the Lord’s prayer (or add a psalm or two, or add the beatitudes, or add verse of St Paul, say Romans 12: 9).  Or use a book of daily readings.  Take a moment, maybe just a week, to start, to journal, to write down something that strikes your fancy, a quotation, a memory, a conversation, a poem. Share meals when possible:Half of all meals now eaten in the USA are eaten alone.Limit your consumption of news, and vary your sources for news.   The average American spends 170 minutes a day watching television and 170 minutes a day searching the internet.  That may be a little too much immediacy, in an age hungry to death rather for transcendence, don’t you think?  That may be a little too much entertainment, in an age hungry to death for enchantment, don’t you think? Think of Kierkegaard and  the divine incognito. Think of Ricouer and the second naivete.  Think of Wesley and the reservoir of human goodness all around.

Make your song something like this:  My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentations; I hear the clear though far off hymn that hails a new creation; no storm can break my inmost calm, when to that rock I’m clinging; if Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

  Grace opens our hearts. Peace stills our hearts.  May this summer 2018, for you, be a summer of Grace and Peace.

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

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