Archive for July, 2018

The Least of These

Sunday, July 29th, 2018

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Ephesians 3:14-21

John 6:1-21

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Our Gospel this morning, sung in hymns, including children’s hymns, read in Holy Scripture, including the Fourth Gospel, approached in thought and speech, including in a twenty minute sermon, and, in full, lived out in the exuberance of a summer Sunday, accents the glory and revelation in the least among us, the littlest among us. The Gospel of John exalts the glory of God revealed in the divine presence, throughout and through all of life. Our passage from John 6 is one of seven great miraculous accounts recalled in the preaching of the earlier church, and collected in the first half of the Gospel of John, as a way to ring the bell, and sing the song, and tell the tale of the divine presence.  It is miraculous that 5,000 have gathered. It is miraculous that all are fed in one setting.  It is miraculous, more miraculous still, that not only are they fed, but they are satisfied.  That is a glorious morning, when all are satisfied.  It is miraculous that in this revelation, there arises, for the author of John in reflection, a sense of what this must mean, that one from beyond has entered within, that one from above has descended below, that ‘a prophet’—such a strange appellation—has come into the world.  To be sure, John has received this story from tradition (as in Mark 6), but he has changed it to celebrate a glorious revelation, which takes him well beyond any simply sacramental concern.  And of all John’s changes, perhaps, the greatest is the agency he gives to one of the least of those present.  In John, unlike in Mark and the other gospels, there is a new figure in the story, a boy, a lad, a little fellow, who is the only one who remembered to bring a lunch along.  There was, John avers, a lad with 5 barley loaves and two fish.  John smuggles into the morning’s Gospel a new character in the ongoing story of Gospel, of divine presence.  In radiant exuberance, the revelatory joy of Jesus’ presence, then and now, on the hills of Palestine and in the hills of New England, John alerts us to this one little lad, the boy with the lunch to share.  This is good news packaged in the lunch pail of the least of these among us.

On the streets of Boston in the summer, we too are alert to the least of these among us.  Summer takes our city and makes it young, younger still, young again.  This is a time when people from all over the globe come and pay us a call, come and visit us here.  Just look at the license plates of the cars driving past you some time on the highways north, south and west.  Just listen to the languages spoken as you saunter down a summer day in this magical city, as you ‘flaneur dans le rue’.  It is an unutterable happiness to be graced with those who want to visit, who come from afar, who save and plan and travel to get here to see something, to learn something, to touch the hem of something.

For this is dear old Boston, the home of the bean and the cod, where the Lowells will speak only to the Cabots, and the Cabots speak only to God.  Boston, in so many ways the city of origin, the point of departure.  Boston, birthplace of the republic:  Haymarket Square, Old North Church, Bunker Hill, Old Ironsides. 

Boston, home to heroes: Paul Revere, Abigail Adams, John Hancock.  Boston, where in 1832  the city heard a children’s choir sing, “My Country tis of thee”, written a year earlier, and sung first at Park Street Church, just a few blocks from here.  This afternoon, on the Freedom Trail you can talk with “Ben Franklin” attired in the garb of 1780.  On the subway you can stop at the Scollay Square station and remember the man who never returned.  Take the train to Fenway park and peer at the green monster.  Try not to make the mistake of wearing a Yankees hat.  Walk through downtown and the flower gardens in the glorious Public Garden.  Spend a minute along the old streets, and feel the freshness of a country being born, being formed, being built.  Visit the children’s science museum.  Boston your home town takes the world and makes it young again!

One of the best spots in this young city, this birthing room for freedom, is the Aquarium.  Right on the port shoreline your city has built a magnificent structure, a several tiered tank.  Coral has been transported from the Caribbean, and then also reproduced. Fish of dozens of colors, shapes, sizes swim in the blue green cylinder.  Divers in fins, wetsuits and air tanks maintain the giant manmade ocean tank.  Stingrays swimming in a separate pool–you could touch them!  And around and around the outside of the cylinder walk mesmerized children and adults, looking on the splendor of the Neptune’s kingdom.  There are six kinds of sharks in the Aquarium. The sand shark and others.  At the top level you can watch them jump and swim. Boston returns one to the great ocean deep from which life at last emerged across the millennia.  Boston takes the world and makes it young again!           

A generation ago, with three children in tow, in the summer heat and on a limited budget, it is a happy glory to recall,  our then young family visited the Aquarium.  The place was mobbed, packed with kids and parents, classes and groups. The colors and shapes and sizes of the humans walking clockwise around the tank mimicked nicely the variety of fish swimming counterclockwise inside.  We saw a little girl pressing her nose against the glass up toward the tank top, just as the sand shark swam by.  Two women photographed the coral.  A boy screamed as he patted the stingray.  There were maybe 3000 people inside the Aquarium.  All of a sudden, the loudspeaker crackled.  “Please be quiet, all of you.”  Soon the tall structure, full of children and parents, was nearly silent.  The announcer continued, “I must regrettably report that a little boy is lost. He is three years old.  He is wearing jeans and a white sweatshirt that says Boston College on the front.  He has red hair.  Please take a minute wherever you are and look toward the tank and then along the walkway.”  In a moment, you could feel the atmosphere in the building shift from lark to worry. Every parent’s worst nightmare had hit. The tension around the tank was palpable.  The thought that one child, even one, out for a day of learning and play would disappear, or worse, held the gathered company on a tight leash.

In a single moment, the joy of the many had been overshadowed, darkly overshadowed by the need of just one. All knew instinctively that there are no extra children, none to spare, not one to give up, to throw to the sharks. In that kind of dramatic moment, it so very clear:  every child is precious, every one dear. 

We have wondered a little this summer, remembering our long ago visit, about the way the announcement so disturbed those of us who could see our own children.  Of course you can think of many reasons.  But one central reason the announcement “child lost…white sweat shirt..” pierced the group that day is that we are dimly aware that there is a kind of revelation in the least of these, like the lunch for the road of life brought along by the lad with the 5 barley loaves and 2 fish. Children have not had a chance in full at life yet.  They have not had their time yet in the batter’s box. They give a sharp measure of how what we say stands up to what we do, of what our walk is like in earshot of all our talk.  Children suffer the effects of poverty most strongly.  Children endure the effects of family demise most squarely.  Children miss the care of physicians and dentists most keenly.  Children feel the impact of bad diet most sharply.  Children are too little, too weak, too powerless, too small in every way to watch out for themselves. Children measure the depth of morality around us by measuring the amount of time, energy, commitment, and money within us, ready to be devoted to children.

As a country, just a few weeks ago, we had a shared, convulsive, similar moment, did we not?  We know the need for laws, for borders, for the institutions that make up a civil society, including proper, legal, fair immigration practices.  Across different perspectives, we can largely agree that law is central to safety and peace, that law is meant to make us more human and humane rather than less. And we also, by vast majority, know and affirm the centrality of immigration in the birth and life and health of our land.  But law, like scripture, requires interpretation, and application, and therein lies challenge.  So when as country, we faced the shame and humiliation, within this decade of humiliation, of seeing children taken from their parents, seeing parents deprived of their children, seeing what can befall the least among us, and especially those 2,000 directly affected, in our own time, at the borders of life, there was a common revulsion, a common reaction, a common response. Nota bene. There is in that one moment a sign, a sign of a common hope.  Like the presence of the little lad who shared his lunch, across the lake from Capernaum, and so both took and gave the measure of that Gospel moment, so the least of these measure us. 

 

As a church, let us readily confess as well, we have yet to achieve the kind of caring for children which we profess.  The pious words of a recent Methodist Church statement (“Durham Declaration”) are ones we all share:  “We believe that caring and providing for one another includes welcoming children into the family of the Church.  As members of the Body of Christ, we know that children are gifts from God.  In this we follow the example of our Lord, who, during his earthly ministry and in the face of opposition, welcomed children to his side.  And we conform to the example of the early church, which, though living in the midst of a pagan empire that casually practiced abortion and abandoned children (usually to slavery, prostitution or death), helped to provide refuge for unwanted ones and their needy parents.”  There was even a footnote to the Didache.  Well, good.  Good words. But anyone who has been around the church for very long knows that we do not endlessly, fully practice what we preach, in this as in so many areas.  We sometimes devote more language to love of children in church than we do actual time spent with children.  Vacation Bible School (we have run one every year since 1979, including a small one here June 24) is one bellwether for our commitment.  Sunday School is a close second.  We are still more than rightly judged by the sort of people we produce, the sort of children we raise, in the communities of faith.

One day this summer, after a round of golf, two friends stopped at the home of a third to have supper.  The host is a retired physician, a family doctor from the bygone days of “fee for service”.  Redolent with exercise and at ease in the company of friends, the doctor reflected on his life and work.  A summer evening, a twilight supper, a moment before the light begins to fade and the cool air returns–this became an hour for thoughts before the autumn twilight of life, a moment before a great change of season.

He spoke about service and care. He ruminated regarding “the young doctors coming up”.  He unabashedly celebrated great-grandchildren, grandchildren, and children (both adopted and biological).  A large family portrait hung on the living room wall.  Mostly, though, this veteran of decades of stewardship campaigns talked about his church.  He reckoned:  “I try to tithe because in the church children get what they cannot get anywhere else.  They catch a sense of wonder–wonder at the world, wonder at love, wonder before holiness. They see real kindness–kind people, kind ideas, kind words, kind works.  Most of all, they learn about generosity–generosity in church that makes a world of difference.  In the church seeds are planted:  seeds of wonder, kindness, and generosity.  I am happy to hope that my tithing has made a difference.”

It made me happy to hear him say so.  It makes me happy, on this summer Sunday, to think of all the good women and men, near and far, who are offering themselves, offering yourselves, to, and with, and through the least of these.  A student teaching church school.  A woman running a child care center.  A man hiking with scouts.  A musician volunteering with a children’s choir.  A graduate student preparing to work with, to counsel children.  A couple who lead confirmation classes.  The blessed ones who will volunteer to lead youth groups.  Summer camp counselors, overworked and underpaid.  And more broadly, the citizenry of this land, which still dimly perceives that the lad with the fish and loaves, the least of these among us, measures us. 

Someone helped you grow up. Someone helped you discover discipline, hard work and a passion for education.  Discipline to reflect the ordering power of God.  Work to reflect the creative energy of God.  Education to reflect the life-giving newness of God’s spirit.  Children, the least of these, are made “in the image and likeness of God.”

People know that there are no extra children, none to spare, not even one to throw to the sharks.  When the need is clearly presented, the problem is almost solved.  So it was on a July day in dear old Boston, a generation ago, that after twenty minutes of looking and waiting, the tourists at the Boston Aquarium again heard the crackling loudspeaker, and again heard the announcer’s voice, and at last heard the report,  the child is found, the lost is found.  Several thousand people stared at one another and many fish and cheered instinctively, just as we will stand and cheer when every child across this great land and around the world over has what she needs to make a life.  

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” …When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

The Spiritual Utility of Discouragement

Sunday, July 22nd, 2018

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1 Kings 19:4-16

2 Corinthians 6:1-10

Matthew 11:28-30

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Exactly one year ago, I was in Sewanee, Tennessee for a conference. One afternoon we went off campus for a hike, and as we were driving back in one of the big University of the South vans, we started to pass an historical marker on the side of the road, and the driver asked, “Does anybody know about the Highlander Folk School?” I said, “Stop the van!” We pulled over at the site where the original Highlander Folk School had stood. Founded in the 1930s by Myles Horton, Highlander’s first focus had been the education and empowerment of rural people in Tennessee. It became active for decades in the labor movement, but when the unions reneged on their commitment to racial equality, Highlander shifted its focus to the Civil Rights movement. It hosted Citizenship Schools and voter registration drives across the South, and held workshops that brought whites and blacks together for training and planning. It was shut down by the state of Tennessee in 1961, and then reincorporated as the Highlander Center in New Market, TN, where it continues its work today. Pete Seeger learned the song “We Shall Overcome” at Highlander. Martin Luther King, Jr. attended its workshops, and a photo of him there was plastered all over billboards in the South with the caption, “MLK attends Communist Training School.” I had learned about Highlander as part of my seminary education, and have long been inspired by its scrappy dedication to democratic education, creative resistance to prejudice and oppression, and perseverance in the face of long odds.

My favorite story about Highlander took place in 1955. A number of black and white civil rights activists had gathered from across the South for two weeks of training. At the end of the workshop, these men and women went around in a circle to share what they planned to do when they returned home to their communities. One woman, though, could not think of what to say. She was in her early 40s, the executive secretary of the NAACP in Montgomery. But she had grown discouraged, and the thought of returning home was daunting. “I’m from the cradle of the confederacy,”she said, when her turn came. “The whites won’t let the blacks do anything, and the blacks won’t stick together. I can’t think of anything I could do that would make a difference.”

That was 1955. In 1956, this same woman decided that she did have it in her, after all, to do something, at home in Montgomery. Or, rather, to not do something. She decided not to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, in defiance of Jim Crow law. Her name was Rosa Parks.

This sermon series at Marsh Chapel is on the theme of “Moving Towards Hope,” and my sermon this morning is titled, “The Spiritual Utility of Discouragement.” We can’t move through hope, without moving through discouragement. And yet, discouragement is a feeling that Christians are usually discouraged from having. It is seen as a trap, the gateway to despair, or just plain negative. Pessimistic. We have a sense that spiritual people, and especially Americans, should be able to look on the bright side, to see the silver lining, to remain optimistic and hopeful no matter what.

But you know, dumpster fires don’t have a silver lining. And there are many reasons why the phrase “dumpster fire” was added to the Merriam Webster Dictionary earlier this year.

So I guess I’m here this morning to preach some good news about discouragement, for those of you who, like me, find yourselves deeply discouraged about our national life, the state of our democracy, and even the state of our humanity. The good news is that we can engage our discouragement, learn from it, maybe even wrestle a blessing from it. We can do that, with God’s help. Our discouragement has things to teach us, if we let it. But we can’t learn from it unless we are willing to spend some time exploring what discouragement truly is, and what its utility might be. So first we’ll define it; we will consider three uses of it; and then we’ll talk about how to move through it, towards hope.

Were you surprised that Rosa Parks, one year before her famous act of civil disobedience, was in such a low place? That she felt that all her faithful work of many years had been futile? That even after experiencing two weeks of the kind of equality and harmony that she had dreamed of, that she still felt powerless?

\If we banish discouragement from the range of spiritually acceptable emotions, and view our own discouragement as a failure, then we usually also reason that spiritual giants like Rosa Parks, MLK, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the saints of the church—they must not have ever felt this way. Or, at least not for very long. But if you read biographies, or the lives of the saints—you’ll know this is not true. If anything, great souls have more and deeper bouts of discouragement, more intense periods of self-doubt, more times when they wonder if their work has been for nothing, than most of us. So the first step of grappling with our own discouragement, whether it comes from within, or from what is going on in our world, is to stop treating it like a sign of our weakness or failure, and instead to claim it as a rational human response to deep disappointment.

What causes discouragement? Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, has an alliterative answer: “fatigue, frustration, failure, and fear.” Discouragement is an emotional response to these four kinds of experiences. (http://www1.cbn.com/biblestudy/some-cures-for-discouragement)

I have a few different images for discouragement. The first is, discouragement as a crossroads. It is a disorientation that forces us to choose a new direction. It is a kind of reckoning. And just as a crossroads is between towns in a kind of no man’s land, our own times of discouragement can feel like a wilderness, where we don’t know which road to choose, or are too worn down to even make a choice, and so we’re stuck.

My second image is of a kind of sinking feeling. I think of discouragement as, when you are swimming in a pool, and you choose to allow yourself to sink to the bottom for a while. There might be lots of splashing and activity above, but you have sunk down so that, holding your breath, you are looking at the pool from below, from a new perspective. Now, if you stay there too long, you’ll drown. That is called despair. But this perspective, from the bottom of the pool, can be a useful vantage point, temporarily. You can see things with a stillness and a clarity that you can’t see from the surface. So while discouragement can feel like sinking, it is a sinking that can also allow us to go deeper.

And finally, discouragement is a heart condition. That is the root of the word, courage, cor, Latin for heart. To be encouraged is to take heart; to be discouraged is to lose heart. And this is “heart” in the sense of the Hebrew Bible, of heart, soul, and mind being wrapped up together: heart as the core, the center of our being. Discouragement rocks us to our core. It is destabilizing, diminishing; it’s a spiritual loss of oxygen.

So how can a condition like this have any kind of utility for us as Christians? Well, I’ll be frank with you: according to the great Google, most people think that it doesn’t. So this is some original theology happening, right now! But I am convinced, that in God, no part of our experience is wasted; what seems to be garbage turns out to be compost.

So here are three spiritual uses of discouragement, which we will look at through the lens of our scriptures for today.

First, discouragement throws us back on the mercy of God. Second, it gives us a unique perspective on our situation that is disorienting, but also valuable. Third, discouragement is an important part of the soul’s natural pendulum.  There are three uses, because three is the holiest number for preachers! Three persons of the Trinity; three points to every sermon.

So, use number one: Discouragement throws us back on the mercy of God. When I’m doing fine, when it’s smooth sailing, I tend to chalk that up to my own efforts. The temptation of peaceful times is to become spiritually complacent. Fatigue, frustration, failure, and fear shake off that complacency quickly. I turn back to God—for assurance, for solace, for wisdom, for clarity out of perplexity. We sang “Sweet Hour of Prayer” just now—I love the way this hymn depicts prayer as this sheltering relationship in the midst of the storm of life. “In seasons of distress and grief/my soul has often found relief.” Our trials and griefs make us turn back towards God, our creator, redeemer, and sustainer. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?”the Psalmist asks. In his distress, he longs for God, “as a deer longs for flowing streams.”Discouragement makes us thirsty for the waters of life. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give your rest. . . For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”Times of discouragement are painful—but they can also force us to seek God with a greater yearning; to go deeperin our relationship with God; to put away our stained-glass sentiments and to show up to prayer boldly, and with greater honesty and vulnerability. Our families, our friends, our colleagues may not want to see that side of us: but God does. Jesus says, take my yoke upon you. Let’s work on this together.

Secondly, discouragement gives us a perspective that is disorienting, but also valuable. It is the bottom of the pool. For Rosa Parks, the safety of the Highlander Folk School provided her with this kind of new perspective. She wrote, “At Highlander, I found out for the first time in my adult life that this could be a unified society, and that there was such a thing as people of different races and backgrounds meeting together in workshops, and living together in peace and harmony. It was a place I was very reluctant to leave.” (Myles Horton, The Long Haul, pp.149-150) This supportive environment allowed her to confront her discouragement honestly: to admit to herself that she felt the odds were too great, and the forces of segregation were too strong for her to confront. She said, “I gained there the strength to persevere in my work for freedom, not just for blacks, but for all oppressed people.”But this strength came not by pushing away her feelings of doubt and discouragement, but by acknowledging them, and sharing them.

The prophet Elijah had a similar experience, of retreating to a place of safety, to confront the cost of facing the forces of oppression. Elijah is a political dissenter. He is a fighter and a crusader for justice. But in the lesson from second Kings, we see him exhausted, ready to give up in the wilderness, having fled for his life from Ahab and Jezebel. He is done. He is despairing. Huddled in a cave on Mt. Horeb, the word of the Lord speaks to him: “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Elijah gives a summary of his career as a prophet, and ends with, “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”It was all for nothing.

And then Elijah is granted this vision of the Lord passing by, where there is a gale force wind, and then an earthquake, and then fire. And the scripture says that the Lord was not in any of these; they were just the prelude to the presence of the Lord. Elijah knows the presence of the Lord is in that place when he hears this mysterious “sound of sheer silence.” Paradoxical. Ominous. The King James Version translates the Hebrew as “a still small voice.” But the “sound of sheer silence” has something very intense about it, something powerful.

When this reading appears in the lectionary, it ends at that verse. Sermons on this passage often end up being about listening to the voice of God within, and the importance of still small voices as opposed to displays of power, etc. And those are fine sentiments. But they ignore the main message of what the sound of sheer silence actually communicates to Elijah, which comes in the next several verses. And let me tell you, the still small voice throws it down. It tells Elijah to essentially go back, and foment revolution against Ahab and all the political powers that have become idolatrous and have abandoned the covenant with Yahweh. Elijah is told to start a holy war. He is to anoint two new kings, which of course is not going to sit well with the current kings, and also to anoint his own successor, Elisha.

And when these things come to pass, we learn that Elijah was wrong: he was not the only one left. There are seven thousand other prophets left in Israel who still worship the Lord. And through a long and circuitous path that is not without great cost, Israel returns to the Lord.

Elijah’s time in the wilderness forced him to answer some big questions. And if we sit with our own discouragement instead of pushing it away, we, too, will have some questions to answer: core questions about our identity, our deepest beliefs, and what is truly possible for us. Who do I think I am? What am I doing here? What is my purpose? And what can I really do?

Seasons of discouragement can be times of painful disillusionment in our lives. But you know, there’s a funny thing about the word “disillusionment.” To become disillusioned, is to experience loss. And yet, it is also a gain: because it is better to live without illusions! Disillusionment means we are no longer being deceived, or deceiving ourselves. The truth can hurt, but in the Gospel of John we are told that the truth will set us free.

The third utility of discouragement is that it is part of the soul’s natural pendulum. I’m thinking here of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the 16thcentury founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. Ignatius knew the value of the emotions, all the emotions, in the life of the spirit. He knew that the so-called negative emotions, channeled correctly, could help us grow in love and grow closer to God; in fact, that they are essential to our life-long conversion. He talked about a movement of the soul between desolation and consolation. And this movement continues all our lives, back and forth. This is how we grow spiritually. It’s important to understand this, and to understand that both states are temporary, and neither is better than the other. In times of discouragement, we need to remember that engaging with the sources of our discouragement can propel us out of this state, and into consolation, into encouragement, again. Elijah did as the still small voice commanded him. He did return, in spite of his fears, to confront Ahab, and to triumph over the prophets of Baal. Rosa Parks admitted her discouragement, her feelings of the futility of her work. And then she participated in an act of civil disobedience that ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Civil Rights movement. In the middle of the bus boycott she wrote to a colleague, We are having a difficult time here, but we are not discouraged. The increased pressure seems to strengthen us for the next blow.” (https://rosaparksbiography.org/bio/the-boycott/)

So how do we come to that place, where in the midst of such struggle, we don’t feel discouraged, but empowered and equipped? That rather than disoriented, disillusioned, we feel grounded in our identity, our purpose, and in the truth of God’s love? I think here, the Apostle Paul is our man.

Paul certainly embraced the full range of his emotions. No recipient of any of his epistles ever asked, “But tell us how you really feel, Paul.”

Paul understood that Christianity is the religion of paradox—and that from a disciple’s point of view, that means holding contradictions together within oneself. As he says in 2nd Corinthians in describing his often-calamitous missionary journeys, We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

In other words, Paul had a really robust theology of down but not out. And I think we need to have one, too. Paul was willing to wrestle the blessing out of discouragement, to call upon the name of the Lord in his times of need, to sing out loud and proud in prison. Paul was in it for the long haul. He was committed.

Years ago in a parish where I once served, there was a woman named Roz who, whenever she ran into another member of the parish, would ask them if they were committed. You know, in the grocery store or at the dry cleaner’s. And it took a bit for these mild-mannered Episcopalians to realize that she was asking them if they were committed to Christ. Maybe we all need a friend like that—to challenge us and to provoke us into stating our deepest commitments, our truest purpose, wherever we are. Sometimes, our own discouragement is that friend—if we can befriend it.

         There is a wonderful few lines that I think sums up all I’ve been trying to say this morning. Margery Stoneman Douglas was the namesake of the high school in Parkland, Florida where, after the massacre in February, a number of students reignited the debate on gun control, all while in the earliest days of their own deepest grief. Margery surely would have been very proud of them. A journalist, advocate for women’s suffrage, ardent environmentalist responsible for the conservation of the Florida Everglades, and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, Stoneman Douglas passed away in 1998 at the age of 108. She once quipped, “I studied elocution at Wellesley College, and I’ve been going around elocuting ever since.”And her example has now inspired a new generation of courageous students, who are travelling the country, speaking and registering voters this summer. (https://www.teenvogue.com/story/who-marjory-stoneman-douglas-was) This is what Stoneman Douglas wrote in 1980:

“Be a nuisance where it counts, but never a bore. Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption, and bad politics—but never give up.”

We in the progressive Church need a robust theology of “down but not out,” and we need to engage in the spiritual practice of targeted nuisance-ing. This requires us to fully engage with our own discouragement, at the same time that we renew our trust in God, and cast ourselves on God’s mercy. To not be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed in all the violations of God’s law of love that make up the headlines today, would be to diminish our very humanity through callousness or willed ignorance. The odds are long: but God’s people are always in it for the long haul. We can learn from discouragement, and grow from it, without giving in to despair—and God’s grace will propel us into a new dawn of justice, compassion, and peace.

In God’s name, Amen.

 

Benediction:

May your own discouragement become a deep well from which you draw many gifts: reliance on God’s mercy; clarity from disorientation, and renewed purpose and commitment. May you wrestle a blessing from it, and widen the way of love in the world. And may God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless you and equip you to be a nuisance where it counts, to the glory of God’s holy name. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Regina L. Walton, Pastor and Rector of Grace Episcopal Church, Newton Corner, Massachusetts; Denominational Counselor for Episcopal/Anglican Students, Harvard Divinity School

The Foundation for a Common Hope

Sunday, July 15th, 2018

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Acts 5:1-11

Luke 4:1-4

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When I was younger in the faith, I spent a bit of time doing what many folks younger in the faith do: I went through the Bible looking for the parts they don’t tell you about in Sunday School.  And that’s when I first read the story of Ananias and Sapphira. 

At the time I thought it was one of the most disturbing stories I had ever read – terrifying, even, what with people dropping dead in a church meeting.  I still think it is a disturbing story, now for different reasons, and apparently I am not the only one.  In years in the church I have never heard it preached, and most recommended Bible commentaries don’t comment much on it at all.  The sermons on the internet that deal with it focus almost exclusively on Ananias’ and Sapphira’s deaths.  They ignore other elements that equally provoke thought and disturb. 

Now when elements in a Bible story that provoke thought and disturb, or the story itself, are so ignored, it almost always means the Bible story deserves a second look.  For instance, Ananias’ and Sapphira’s story’s placement in the Acts larger narrative instructs as well as shocks. The story raises the complex and oh-so-contemprary issue of The Lie.  And, it is a story that involves the Holy Spirit.  It is because of these other elements, not just the deaths, that I preach on it this morning, in our preaching series context of a common hope.

First, ler’s look at the story’s placement in the larger narrative of Acts. It comes after Luke’s description of the beginning of the church. In the beginning, the members were of one heart and soul in their beliefs and in their life together.  All their resources were held in common, the apostles gave their witness to the resurrection with great power, and great grace was upon everyone.  No one wanted for anything, because those who had private resources sold them and brought the proceeds to the apostles for redistribution, as did Barnabas the “son of encouragement”.  It was truly the beloved, and loving, community, the hope of return to which inspires the church to this day.

But in this beloved and lovng community are also Ananias and Sapphira.

They also agree to sell a piece of property, but give only a part of the proceeds to the apostles for distribution.  They keep the rest for themselves.  And here is the crux of the story:  they tell the apostles they are giving them the whole amount. They lie.

Have you noticed how so few people lie nowadays?  They fib, prevaricate, misspeak, misunderstand, deceive, mislead, tell whoppers, are disingenuous, tell white lies, fudge or fuzz the truth, skirt the issue, deviate from the truth, slander, libel, trump-up charges, pad a resume or expense account, present and spread fake news, but they don’t lie. Actually to call someone a liar or something a lie is apparently almost too strong, too judgmental on what seems to be a social rather than a moral scale.  Even in the media, even in government, no one lies.  No one is even an alleged liar.  To say, “They lie.” seems say too much.

But Peter, of course, being Peter, has no such care for social niceties.  He clearly expresses the enormity of what Ananias and Sapphira have done.  It has nothing to do with the fact that they kept back part of the proceeds – they could just as well have kept back the whole amount, or not sold the property at all. But they lied, and said they had given the whole.  And by that lie, as Peter points out, they have done so much more.  They have listened to Satan – the one who works against Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the one who is the tempter in the wilderness against Jesus’ own integrity and self-understanding and against the Holy Spirit’s leading.  Even though the community will be affected, their lie to the community pales in comparison to the fact that they have lied to God, in particular to the Holy Spirit who guides and sustains them all.  And they have put the Holy Spirit to the test. The Lie is an attempt to undermine the Spirit’s presence and its power to guide, protect, and inspire in the face of The Lie’s creation of mistrust and confusion.

Finally, their lie will come back on Ananias and Sapphira.  For whatever reason, and debate rages, the lie is a prelude to their deaths.  And interestingly enough, at the end of the story, the beloved community, which began as “the whole group of those who believed”, has become “the church”, the ekklesia, the people called out and gathered to be God’s people. They are now distinct from those who surround them, because they know The Lie is within them as well as without – and now they will have to make choices.  And great fear has come upon them, and everyone who hears the story of Ananias and Sapphira.  The church in Acts is still the beloved community, but now they know that the dangers to their mutuality and mission can come from within as well as without. Distrust and betrayal are now possibilities even among the beloved.  And they know that these dangers from within begin with The Lie.

The noted moral philosopher, peace activist, and ethicist Sissela Bok, in her landmark book Lying:  Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, notes that now, it is even hard to decide what a lie is.  So she focuses on what she defines as “’clear-cut lies’.  These are lies where the intention to mislead is obvious, where the liar knows that what they are communicating is not what they believe, and where they have not deluded themselves into believing their own deceits.” Bok defines a lie as “any intentionally deceptive message that is stated.” – which statement can include such media as Morse code, sign language, signal flags, and so on.  Note the emphasis on intention and statement.  It is not the truth or falsity of what a person says that settles the question of whether or not that person is lying – it is whether or not they intend their statement to be a lie. 

The presence of intention points up the great paradox of The Lie.  We more often than not lie with good intent.  As Bok notes, we lie to excuse ourselves or to get ourselves out of something without causing offense.  We lie to protect and advance our standing and our place in the world.  We lie to save ourselves and others in a crisis.  We lie to expose liars.  We lie to enemies to defeat them.  We lie to protect our children, peers, and clients.  We lie for the public good, and we lie to people for their own good, especially if they are very ill or dying, or if we have power over them.  All we want to do is make life easier for ourselves and others.  All we want to do is help.  Everybody lies.  And no one drops down dead.

It’s true that the results of their lie were extreme for Ananias and Sapphira.  But every lie bears a cost, to both the liar and the ones lied to.  Bok makes the connection between deception and violence as the two forms of deliberate assault on human beings.  Both coerce, but The Lie is the more subtle – it works on belief as well as action.  A lie forces because it intends someone to believe something that is not true.  Iago did not need to kill Othello; he only had to lie to him, and have him believe it, to destroy him.  Bok also notes that lying almost always accompanies every other form of wrongdoing and harm:  murder, theft, bribery, and so on almost require that one lie.  Lying almost always accompanies many other forms of human misery as well.  Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, philosopher, writer and podcast host.  He is famous also for being one of “the Four Horsemen of Atheism”. I do not agree with all of his ideas, and, in his book Lying, he has some ideas that I do agree with.  He connects lies with the perpetuation of addiction and of domestic violence, and with the self-sabotage of family relationships, careers, and reputations.  He notes that as human beings, we often act in ways that are guaranteed to make us unhappy, and calls lying “the royal road to chaos”. In particular he notes that “white lies” are the ones that most tempt us, and “tend to be the only lies that good people tell while imagining that they are being good in the process.” He also suggests that the lies we tell for the good of others presume that we are the best judges of how much other people should understand about their own lives.  This is an arrogant position that disrespects those we claim to care about.

In any case, Bok and Harris both note that lying always requires a reason, a justification:  one has to convince oneself to lie, and if found out one needs to convince others that the lie was necessary.

These costs of lying are different for those deceived and for the liar, but they often are great costs for both.  For the deceived, when we find out we have been lied to, for whatever reason, none of us likes it.  Even in small things, we may be angry, or feel betrayed. Suspicion is now part of the relationship – if someone will lie to us in small things, why wouldn’t they lie to us in big things too.  If it is a big lie, we may mourn the choices we were unable to make or the things we would have done differently had we known the truth, or we may lose faith in the persons or institutions that we once believed in.  If a single person or a small group of persons is lied to, a number of people may still be hurt by the lie, as when a public health official is lied to about the purity of a city’s water system. 

While these costs to those lied to may be more obvious, there are costs to the liar as well.  Liars know that they lie – they intend to lie, and to have that lie believed.  A liar then has to regard those they have lied to with caution.  They have to remember what lies they have told to specific people and be careful not to get mixed up.  Once they have lied, it becomes easier to tell more lies.  This ups the risk of getting caught, and if they are caught, the damage to their credibility and reputation far outweighs any benefits they may have obtained from the lie. And while liars may take into account the effect their lie may have on an individual, they do not always realize the ways that these effects may spread to affect whole communities in negative ways, including the communities of which they are a part. 

We in our time know the costs of The Lie, both as we are lied to by people and institutions we have trusted, and as we are caught up in the temptation to lie if only to make our lives a little easier.  And yet it is all too easy to imagine our society, our communities, our lives, sliding into a state where words cannot ever be trusted again. Technology makes this seem more likely. But even more there is in our time an aversion to truthtelling.  It is too difficult.  It takes too much time and effort, or it is not as effective for what we want as is the violence of lying.  Even in the church, we often lie, especially white lie, because to have a telling-the-truth-in-love-and-mutuality conversation with someone seems too intrusive or fraught or complicated – when in fact by not having that conversation we may deny that person a chance to learn more about themselves and us, in ways that might help, heal, or reconcile them with us, or with others, or with themselves. 

A common hope seems more and more like an unreachable ideal — certainly in society, and even in the church, certainly if The Lie becomes entrenched and is not exposed and rooted out for what it is. The Lie is a cheat:  against the community, against the individual, even against the liar.  It sets up a false goal of superficiality and complacency rather than the love and justice that God intends for human beings and creation.  Fortunately, while the Spirit may be put to the test, that does not mean that the Spirit cannot pass the test, and then do even more. 

Sissela Bok wrote her book first in 1979, another time of big and small lies in the country and in the world, and her book has gone through two more editions since.  She notes that, due to people who exposed and rejected lies, some things have changed.  Doctors used to lie routinely to their patients as to the state of their health and the probabilities of procedures; indeed, given interpretations of patient confidentiality, they often found themselves lying to one patient while preserving the confidentiality of another.  Now there are prohibitions for lying and requirements for informed consent.  Scientific researchers and behavioral researchers often did not inform their subjects as to what actually was being done to them or the true aims of the research; now there are privacy mandates and requirements for informed consent. Exposures of the lies of government and other institutions have brought about more healthy skepticism, and more demands for institutional accountability:  fact checkers and investigative reporting are now integrated into public life.  Recently Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, Flint Michigan, Women’s Marches, and demonstrations for immigration reform have put on notice the status quoof lies and violence against people and creation. Both Bok and Harris also suggest that if people still insist on lying, there should be a sort of agreed-upon “just lie” theory, rather like a “just war” theory. It would begin with the questioning of the necessity for lying at all, and go on to mitigate as many negative effects of The Lie as possible.  But perhaps Harris the atheist has the most thought-provoking  idea for the beloved community and a common hope:  It would promote the benefits of telling the truth most – if not all – of the time.  So there’s nothing to keep track of.  We don’t have to justify ourselves.  We as honest persons for others and other honest people for us become a refuge:  we mean what we say, we won’t say one thing to others’ faces and another behind their backs, both our constructive criticism and our praise can be relied on.  We can honestly change our minds, and we can be open about our doubts and fears.  We will avoid many forms of suffering and embarrassment.  While there may be discomfort, it will be short-lived, because we can be kind in telling the truth to others:  we don’t want to offend or hurt them, we just want them to have the same knowledge we have and would want in the same situation. Through telling the truth we can also learn new ways we want to grow and learn.

The American author and humorist Mark Twain wrote:  “When in doubt, tell the truth.  It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.”  While The Lie sets us up for misery, there is humor and joy in telling the truth.  In the beloved community, telling the truth is a foundation for a common hope.  It is a foundation for love, joy, peace, justice, kindness, and compassion in that common hope.  It sets us up for a common hope for right relationship with God, self, and all the neighbors.  It removes obstacles to the Holy Spirit’s work, and is a big part of our cooperation with that Spirit and its work.  The story of Ananias and Sapphira is the story of the Fall in the beloved community of the church, the story of the shaking of the common hope.  When we as members and restorers of the beloved community, and our common hope, tell the truth, we reverse that story, and bring back the mutuality and trust and hope intended for God’s people and for creation.  Amen.

—Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

The Drinking Gourd

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

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Mark 6:1-13

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There is a dark temptation in the assumption that the common hope of freedom is really in the hands of somebody else, someone other than you and me.  It is falsely reassuring to judge that the real big advances in liberty have been, are, or will be the work of somebody else.

Today, in this week of Independence Day, we want to remember that the history of our nation tells another story.  Our land was populated by people who saw the expanding circle of hope as their own responsibility.  With Reinhold Niebuhr, they defined love as taking responsibility.

For the week past, we have been as a family at home, in the farmlands of the Empire State, due west. On the Fourth of July we sat in a boat, three generations watching, as fireworks adorned the sky, north, south, east and west.  And then, the quiet, and the dark.  And then the firmament, the black sky dotted with bits of white.  And there, the ‘drinking gourd’, the Big Dipper, the constellation whose outer stars point to the North Star.  The way home, the way north, the way out, the way of hope.  Our forebears have left us some travel tips on the journey of hope.  Walk with me for a few minutes, due west.  Here is a Sunday morning summer vacation trip, free of charge, and lasting only twenty minutes, a remembrance of hope, perhaps hopeful for us, just now, in our own time of trial.  I am taking you back home with me this morning.  I want you to ‘meet the folks’.

Once a southern Methodist preacher paid this complement.  “I mean this, about your area.  The south is a different place than it was seventy years ago.  Totally different, and the difference comes from Rochester and Syracuse.  Two things have completed changed the southern jurisdiction:  civil rights and air conditioning!  Civil Rights from Rochester and Air Conditioning from Syracuse!” The story of air conditioning we leave for another day.

Our land has given rise to many women and men who did not leave freedom to somebody else.  Its price of eternal vigilance they provided in very daily, very personal, very local, very immediate ways.  In the same manner by which we might take for granted Niagara Falls, so close and so grand, we take these mighty stories for granted, saving stories of hope and freedom.

Due west is the land of Hiawatha (“who causes rivers to run”).  Such musical names adorn this geography:  Canandaigua, Tioghnioga, Onondaga, Tuscarora, Susquehanna.  The great native leader of the Iroquois showed in the 15thcentury the critical need for union, for space and time in which to live together.  His leadership was focused on common hope, on collegial relations, on counsel together, and so he is harbinger of all the examples of faith and freedom to come up along the Mohawk River and the Erie Canal, as Longfellow rhymed:

All your strength is in your union

All your weakness in discord

Therefore be at peace henceforward

And as brothers live together

This also is the land of Harriet Tubman.  You may want to visit her home in Auburn.  Her neighbor William Seward, Lincoln’s opponent and ally, also from Auburn, bought Alaska, considered at the time a folly, an “ice-box”.  Tubman’s grand niece, Janet Lauerson, was on our church staff for a time in Syracuse, after we both migrated down from the far north country, not far from the burial place of John Brown.  Brown’s body lies moldering under a ski lift near Lake Placid.  He and Gerrit Smith, founder of Peterboro, a village for freed slaves, a short 15 minutes north of our July 4 fireworks, were not ‘compatibalists’ regarding slavery.  As Lincoln would later say, they felt those who most affirmed slavery should start by trying it for themselves.  Peterboro, a small village of people of color, in our childhood, stood out, under its civil war statue, one hundred years later, as a beachhead of freedom.  Brown, Smith, Seward and others were the chorus before which Tubman could sing out the life of freedom, following the underground railroad.  Following the Drinking Gourd.Remember her wisdom: “When I found I had crossed that line (on her first escape from slavery, 1845), I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person.  There was such a glory over everything…I started with this idea in my head, ‘There’s two things I’ve got a right to…death or liberty’…’Twant me, ‘twas the Lord. I always told him, “I trust you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me, and he always did.”

You will expect to hear something of Frederick Douglass, on this trek, who is buried in Rochester. His cemetery plot is across the street from Strong Memorial Hospital.  As one patient said one day, looking through the window, “it gives you something to think about”.  Douglass printed a journal, the “North Star” in Rochester, and so developed a voice for a new people in a new era.  80 years or so later, at Syracuse University, it was Professor Roland Wolseley who developed the first national program in Black Journalism, across the mid to late 20thcentury.  Wolseley was formed in the faith under the great preaching of the best Methodist preacher in the 20thcentury, Ernest Freemont Tittle, when Wolseley’s young wife was Tittle’s secretary.  Wolseley was our pastor parish chair, and measured sermons according to their likeness or otherwise to those of Tittle.  Wolseley lived around the corner from the Carrier Dome and therein a moving tribute to Ernie Davis, a kid from Elmira, who, a century after Douglass, and in the lifespan of Wolseley, gave tragic, courageous, and lasting embodiment to the hope of racial justice, harmony and integration.  He also played some football.   The voice of Douglass rings out against the harmonic background of Tittle, Wolseley, Davis and others.  In the North Star, Douglass wrote: “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle…If there is no struggle, there is no progress.  Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening.  They want the ocean without the awful roar of its mighty waters.” Or maybe we should give the honor to his ally Sojourner Truth: “That…man…says women can’t have as many rights as man, cause Christ wasn’t a woman.  Well, where did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman.  Man had nothing to do with it!”

Susan B. Anthony did not leave the project of freedom to others.  I wonder what sort of dinner companion she might have been. Her constant consort with governors and senators across the Empire state made her an early Eleanor Roosevelt.  Think a bit about where we have traveled in hope under the Drinking Gourd.  Pause and slake some thirst by remembering real progress in history.  Our grandmother grew up in Cooperstown and graduated from Smith College four years before she had the right to vote.  Our mother was born only eight years after full suffrage.  Yet today, my wife is a musician and teacher, my sister is a corporate attorney, my other sister a teacher in medical care, and across a life in ministry my top colleagues have been female.  I scratch my head to imagine a world without their voices.  For instance,  Syracuse produced Betty Bone Schiess, one of the first women ordained to ministry in the Protestant Episcopal church.  One of the Philadelphia 11.  We study her in Introduction to Religion.  One rainy day when my daughter Emily was 13 and had the flu, we met Schiess, at the druggist.  The pharmacist called her name.  I clamored over to investigate whether it were she, the famous Schiess.  “Who wants to know?” she replied.  As she left, after good banter, she turned in her slicker and totting an umbrella, and looking at us, pronounced this blessing:  “One day you will be a Methodist bishop”.   At first I thought she was speaking to me. But no.  “Thank you very much”, my daughter replied.  Think of Schiess when you visit the birthplace of suffrage and feminism in Seneca Falls.  Susan B. Anthony’s witness stands out among the witness of so many others:  your grandmother, your mother, your sister, your wife, your daughter, your pastor, Betty Bone Schiess, and so many others. Who can forget her motto: “Failure is impossible” (on her 86thbirthday, 1906).  And her challenge: “Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation.”

Sometimes the freedom train derailed.  Exuberance can produce minor collisions.  When we get so focused on the speedometer that we forget to drive the car safely, then trouble arises.  Woodstock pales by comparison with the communal experiments in this region during the nineteenth century.   The Shaker Community and the Oneida Community perhaps can bracket our recollection. Under Mother Ann Lee, and starting in farm country near New Lebanon, in the Albany area, just across the Massachusetts line, the shaking Quakers firmly addressed the matter of sex.  They forbade it.  Like the desert fathers and Qumran communities of old, they took Paul at his word and meditated fully on 1 Corinthians 7.  Women and men came together only once a week, on Sunday morning, for ecstatic singing and dancing, hence their name.  This made church attendance somewhat more than casual liturgical observance.  However, the practice did not amplify the community itself:  infant baptisms lacked the requisite infant, and so were infrequent. Consequently the Shakers moved to Cleveland where they blended into Sherwood Anderson’s new Ohio, returning to the old ways of hard work, monogamy, and frugality.  In short, they became Methodists.  Hear, again, the Shaker tune:

Tis a gift to be loving

Tis the best gift of all

Like a gentle rain love falls to cover all

When we find ourselves in the place just right

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight

 

When true, simplicity is gain

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed

To turn, turn, will be our delight

‘Till by turning, turning, we come round right

Now, the Oneida’s. You may want to read again Without Sin, the history of their somewhat different experiment.  Just a few miles west of New Lebanon, the Oneida community set out to find heaven on earth, the end of all oppressions, and even the hope that, as John H Noyes read from Revelation, “death itself will be no more”.  Although I went to High School in Oneida I do not recall a full lesson on the matter of stirpiculture, the heart of the Oneida experiment. The Oneidas practiced “complex” marriage, in which every man was married to every woman and vice-versa. Procreation was planned, through a deliberated, committee process. (For those of you for whom this is more information than you require, I apologize) Three hundred in number at their greatest growth, the community produced bear traps and then silver, continuing, in some fashion, until just a few years ago.  Of all the utopian experiments, the Oneida project is one of the most fascinating.  However, after word got out about the doings and practices in Oneida, clergy in Syracuse banded together and ran them out of town, first to Canada and then to the Midwest. Noyes died on the trip, and the community disappeared, except on your dinner table, in wedding gifts, and in quality restaurants.  Let us be charitable and remember their hope, their love of freedom, as Noyes expressed it, even if we cannot affirm his methods: “I am free of sin and in a state of Perfection”

God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.  The faith of Jesus Christ and the freedom of Jesus Christ we celebrate today. Our forebears were disinclined to leave the pursuit of freedom to others.  They seized freedom in their own hands and by their own lives.  They did not wait on others.  They did not pause to seek a secret blessing.  They did not wait until some ethereal sign emerged. They did not expect some magic insight.   And it is their hope of freedom that is our greatest remembrance of them.

They followed today’s dominical teaching of Mark 6. (Notice, today, that here Jesus fails in preaching but succeeds in pastoral leadership.)  When you journey toward hope, keep your friendships in good repair (6:7), travel light (6: 8), keep faith close which is the confidence that better things can come out of worse, waste no time (6:10), when rejected shake the dust from your feet and move on (6:11).   And keep the main thing the main thing:  Jesus Christ is come to guide us true north, guide us by the Drinking Gourd, guide us on the journey of hope, and we are not there yet. Of course not. It is hope that we seek.  And hope that is seen is not hope.  Who hopes for what he sees?  We hope for what we do not see, and wait for it with patience.  Real love is taking historical responsibility on the journey of hope.

 In earshot of our Lord’s teaching, in remembrance of the freedom and hope of our forebears, there is no avoiding a very personal question:  as a Christian man or woman, what are you going to do to continue to expand the circle of freedom in our time?  Where is your Polaris, your North Star, your Drinking Gourd? Where is your tribal council to create?  Where is your slavery to escape?  Where is your North Star to publish?  Where is your franchise to find?  Where is your libertinism to avoid?  Where is your hope to share?  Are you to celebrate independence by singing and smiling only?  Or will you lift a hand?

From the rear of Marsh Chapel, if the windows could speak, you would hear our 16thPresident, himself a beacon of hope:

(Gettysburg Address, recited)

May it be so:

Follow the drinking gourd,

Follow the drinking gourd,

For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom,

Follow the drinking gourd.

Left foot, peg foot, traveling on,

Follow the drinking gourd.

The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

Hope in Common

Sunday, July 1st, 2018

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2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

Mark 5:25-34

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If religion is to contribute to a global renewal of hope, it will have to transcend its own descent into tribalism and realize its vocation to incarnate truth and justice for all.

To realize that we live in a society in a world desperately in need of hope, we need turn no further than the front page of the newspaper, or better yet, to flip on our local NPR affiliate. There we may learn of children separated from their parents and thrown in cages. We may learn that it is constitutional to blatantly discriminate on the basis of religion as long as we can come up with a second, more legitimate reason for doing so. We may learn that principles applied to legislative confirmation of appointments when the opposing party leads the executive branch need not apply when the party of the legislative majority holds the White House. We may learn that the dignity and integrity of those entrusted with holding each and all of us to our highest ideals in the public forum are derided for doing just that, and their lives and safety threatened, by those they in fact call to account. All of this callousness and hypocrisy and evil has been carried out by our government in our names just this week.

“Surely there has never been a generation in the course of human history with so little ground under its feet as our own… The great masquerade of evil has wrought havoc with all our ethical preconceptions. This appearance of evil in the guise of light, beneficence and historical necessity is utterly bewildering to anyone nurtured in our traditional ethical systems.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: MacMillan, 1959). No, this is not an original commentary on the present situation, though you could be forgiven for assuming it so. It is Dietrich Bonhoeffer commenting on Germany under the Nazi party while in prison for his activities as part of the resistance movement.

Out of the depths have I cried to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice;
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.
If you, Lord, were to mark what is done amiss,
O Lord, who could stand? -Psalm 130: 1-2 (NRSV)

Resistance is what we are called to in our time as well. But if our resistance is going to amount to anything it will need to be inspired by, grounded in, and oriented toward a hope for what we aspire to beyond the present tribulation. I for one, and perhaps you as well, would like to think that religion might play a role in envisioning and enacting such hope. At the same time, I for one, and perhaps you as well, have a deep awareness of just how much religion is bound up in, and too often supportive of, the callousness, hypocrisy, and evil we are supposed to be resisting, not only here at home, but around the world. Indeed, if religion is to contribute to a global renewal of hope, we will have to transcend our own descent into tribalism and realize our vocation to incarnate truth and justice for all.

Religion too often succumbs to tribal idolatries. This includes Christianity, often as not at the vanguard of the fall from grace. Paul Tillich reminds us that idolatry is mistaking the finite for the infinite. Tribal idolatries mistake the finitude of our personal identities with the infinity of God’s grace. In the Christian idiom, the bible is mistaken for God, masculinity is mistaken for Christ-likeness, whiteness is mistaken for purity, the nation state is mistaken for the realm of God, and money is mistaken for salvation. When identities are so cosmologized against the backdrop of divinity, they become potent principles for discriminating in-groups from out-groups. Rich, white, male Americans who believe in the bible are in, and everyone else is out.

Well, now, this is strange. Here we are speaking in the Christian idiom, and yet there seems to be a glaring omission from the supposedly Christian tribal idolatry. Hellooo! Jesus! How odd. Jesus appears to have been written out of Christianity.

Of course Jesus has been written out of tribalistic Christianity. Jesus was fundamentally opposed to tribalism, as were the founding figures of most, if not all, religions. Including Jesus would result in an inevitable iconoclasm. Consider our Gospel reading for today, which concludes with Jesus saying, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” -Mark 5: 34 (NRSV). So much for Masculanity. If you need it spelled out for you, my mother preached a fantastic sermon on that passage a few years ago. Then there’s our passage from the first chapter of Second Samuel. I’m just going to set the 26thverse here and let you meditate on it, merely noting that we’ve just concluded a fantastic Pride month in spite of the Supreme Court letting a baker get away with discriminating against LGBTQ folk. David says, “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” -2 Samuel 1: 26 (NRSV).

Please note: today’s scripture readings were prescribed by the Revised Common Lectionary. I did not select them: they were set for today in 1994, and Dean Hill assigned me to preach today.

Jesus does not play the in-group/out-group game, and neither should the religion founded in his name and on his teaching. Neither should the religions whose founders similarly decried tribalism in its many guises, that is, nearly all of them. This is not to say there has necessarily ever been a pristine expression of religion apart from the temptation toward idolatry. All of the tribalistic framings have been written in since the beginning, including in the sacred texts themselves. Our calling, like the calling of all people of faith down through the ages, is to do better: to be more faithful, to exhibit more integrity, to press onward toward perfection.

This does lead us to a troubling conundrum, though:

If religion is not about controlling women’s bodies, minds, and spirits;

If religion is not about judging the character of people by the color of their skin;

If religion is not about claiming God for ourselves over against our neighbor;

If religion is not about gaining and parading extravagant sums of money;

If religion is not about justifying our worst proclivities by beating others over the head with a book;

Then what is left for religion to be about?

Hope. Religion is about hope. “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you” -1 Peter 3: 15 (NRSV). Yet, even here, at the brink of a turn toward redemption, the temptation to tribalism looms. Religion is about hope, but it is not about your hope, and your hope, and your hope, and my hope, and her hope, and his hope. Hope is not individual. Hope is not even collective. Hope is in common. Hope is for all of us, together. As Howard Thurman taught us, “People, all people, belong to one another.”

In what, then, are we to hope? The good news, the gospel, for us today is that religion is not rocket science. The hope of religion is really so simple and so straightforward that it is little wonder it so often gets overlooked and that we become suspicious that it must be some sort of trick. Hope is simply this: all means all. That’s it: all means all, no ifs, ands, or buts.

All means all. Not, “all if you are male.” All. Women and men and trans and intersex and gender-nonconforming. All.

All means all. Not, “all if you are white.” All. Black and brown and white and every shade in between and beyond. All.

All means all. Not, “all if you are a U.S. citizen.” All. Canadian and Mexican and American and Chinese and Indian and Nigerian and Kenyan and Iranian and Russian and Colombian and Irish and Italian and all the rest. All.

All means all. Not, “all if you are rich.” All. Poor and rich and middle class that “As it is written, ‘the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little’” -2 Corinthians 8: 15. All.

All means all. Not, “all as long as you believe every word that is printed in this book as I understand it.” All. Jews and Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Jains and Sikhs and Bahais and Buddhists and Daoists and Confucians and atheists and agnostics and spiritual but not religious and nones. All.

All means all. God makes all of us and God calls all of us to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly. That includes you, and you, and you, and you, and me, and her, and him. All.

“People, all people, belong to one another, and those who shut themselves away diminish themselves, and those who shut others away from them destroy themselves” (Howard Thurman, paraphrased from The Search for Common Ground). All means all because all is all having been made by the all in all.

Last night, like most nights, before I went to sleep I went into each of my daughters’ bedrooms and watched them sleeping peacefully surrounded by too many stuffed animals to count. This week, however, it is impossible to look at them sleeping soundly and then walk across the hall to my own bed without immediately thinking of the thousands of children ripped from their parents’ arms and made to sleep under foil blankets, wailing themselves to sleep with cries for their mothers. This egregious human rights violation is being carried out in our time, on our watch, by our government, in our names. You see, a corollary of insisting that all means all is that the terror and torment being visited upon these children even as I speak is on all of us, regardless of who we voted for.

On Wednesday we will celebrate Independence Day, the foundational principle of which is liberty and justice for all. As a country we have never fulfilled this principle, always leaving liberty and justice a promissory note for some. Yet, those whose dignity and worth has been violated continue to come in hope of receiving what we have promised. Thus, our failure only compounds their violation. We must do better.

I have two beautiful daughters. Hope too has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage. If you are angered by what is being done in your name, then you must wrap yourself in hope that you may have the courage to resist. A Bonhoeffer moment is fast approaching when we may be called upon to resist in ways we had hoped would never be necessary. We will then have to answer, in real time, the question posed by our Baccalaureate speaker in May, the honorable Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto: what will youdo in a moral crisis?

If this sounds to you like a kind of extremism, good. Like Bonhoeffer, Dr. King gave voice to some of his most profound thinking from prison as he reminds us, “Was not Jesus an extremist in love? – ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice? – ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? – ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist? – ‘Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.’ Was not John Bunyan an extremist? – ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a mockery of my conscience.’ Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? – ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? – ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?” (Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail).

Perhaps the greatest sign of hope this past week was the Democratic primary victory by just such an extremist in the 14thcongressional district of the state of New York, Boston University alumna Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In an article for America magazine she reminds us just how deeply the pursuit of justice is implicated in the life of faith. She says, “By nature, a society that forgives and rehabilitates its people is a society that forgives and transforms itself. That takes a radical kind of love, a secret of which is given in the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.And let us not forget the guiding principle of ‘the least among us’ found in Matthew: that we are compelled to care for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick and, yes—the imprisoned.”

All means all. God makes all of us and God calls all of us to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly. That includes you, and you, and you, and you, and me, and her, and him. All. Amen.

– Brother Lawrence A. Whitney, LC†, University Chaplain for Community Life