Archive for October, 2018

The Hope of Freedom

Sunday, October 28th, 2018

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Job 42:1-6

Mark 10:46-52

Click here to listen to the meditations only

One: Bird

 Overhead an eagle soars, on quiet summer days when the lake is empty.  He does not come out on the weekend, or when there is noise, or when the boats are numerous.  But in the quiet he sails and soars, hunting the lake with an eagle eye, hunting for a next fish meal.  You turn over swimming, floating on your back, and over he goes, right overhead, a beautiful long wing span against the blue gray sky.   On the off occasion, twice say a summer, he has his partner with him, his mate, eagles mating as they do for life.  But not today.  He commands the sky, and all below with a grace, a soaring beauty, a regal flight. Beyond the gulls, the sparrows, the robins, the red winged blackbirds, the cardinals, the finches, the bluebirds, the blue-jays, even beyond the blue heron, just there soars the eagle.   Karl Barth recited and repeated, ‘The Gospel is the freedom of a bird in flight’.

Freedom.   In the summer our Marsh sermon series surveyed the expanse, the freeing breadth of hope.  This fall we have listened for the wind chimes of hope, setting us loose, setting us free, in presence, in pressure, in peace, in beauty, in healing, in welcome, and in faith.  What does the God of Hope (Rom. 15:13) bring us today, now that we set hope next to freedom? What is the hope of freedom, for you, a woman or man of faith?

‘For freedom Christ has set us free’, intones the Apostle: ‘stand fast therefore and do not be enslaved again’ (Gal. 5: 1).  Paul addresses the Galatians,53ad, with regard to the superiority of faith to religion, with regard to the superiority of gospel to tradition, and in affirmation of the gospel freedom to include the Gentiles by grace.  Paul’s words, remembered, recited and repeated, became the core of the Protestant Reformation501 years ago, a Reformation we recall and honor the last Sunday each October–today.   The same sense of freedom, the expansion of human freedom, nurtured the Renaissance,the renaissance of learning, art, music, philosophy, and science that over several hundreds more years has given us our current world, culture and life.  Market capitalism emerged steadily in the light and under the wingspan of religious and artistic freedoms.   Political democracy came along as well, in fits and starts, starts and fits which have yet to cease, as we are relearning in this decade.  The freedom of the person of faith, unshackled from the bonds of institutional religion, grown in the expansion of culture and art, given substance and support through the burgeoning accumulation of social and personal capital, and protected by democratic governments, ideals, and practices, surely is a great or the great blessed happy victory of the modern era.

Two: Fromm

 Or is it? 

Freedom, the freedom of the person of faith, surely is a great or the great blessed happy victory of the modern era.

Or is it?

In a time when suddenly and unhappily we witness a broad willingness to taste test authoritarianism, a dark willingness to give over personal freedom for the sake of a putative security, or a rage for order, or a minimization of the more complex forms of self-government, just how precious is freedom, and at what cost?

You know, a sermon seems like a monologue.  Yet it is not.  A sermon is a thicket, a tangled webbing of dialogues, including in the spoken word, the moment of the word.  The dialogues include memory, Scripture, experience, prayer, illumination, fear, dreams and the uncanny evocation of the divine.   For instance, today’s sermon comes in part out of a June dialogue.  We had been invited to speak a half dozen times, sermons and lectures, for the New England Annual Conference, in session for part of a week in Manchester, NH.  The forgiving and kind Methodists there received these pronouncements with a good grace, more than deserved.  You will not be surprised that the Gospel of John appeared, now and then, that week.  After one such presentation which probably, like the peace of God, ‘passed all understanding and endured forever’, one fellow paused in reflection on what he had heard.  He may have been a retired minister, though with sadness the name escaped collection and so memory.  Trailing after his response came this:  What you said reminded me very much of Erich Fromm.  I stuffed the reference in my so-called memory.  Erich Fromm.   I had not thought of him in decades.  With the eagle soaring in the summer, I dug him out.  You see about sermons and dialogues.  Here, five months later, the dialogue emerges, continues, continues its wayfaring course in discourse.  For Fromm acutely inspected both hope and freedom, the theme of our sermon today.

That is, in 1941 the philosopher Erich Fromm wrote a striking, seminal book on this question, ‘just how precious is freedom, and at what cost?’.  Its English title is Escape From Freedom.  Fromm explores the dark side of freedom, religious, cultural, economic and political.  As an expatriate German, watching the events in Europe at the time, Fromm was trying to understand, from the perspective of social psychology, the rise of authoritarianism in his native land, but also, and more broadly and in a general way, to understand how people and groups of people become enthralled with, enamored of, and committed to authoritarianism.  His argument is direct and simple:  real freedom is real difficult to handle, and, when pressed, people move to escape from the demands of freedom by investment in authority.  Freedom is scary.  Freedom is demanding.  Freedom is dangerous.  Freedom is difficult.  Better to hide underneath the sturdy voice of an authoritarian leader, preferably one who denies all responsibility for wrong or hurt, the rock solid social identity of a mass of people, the commitment, itself often quite costly, to a cause that sets aside personal freedom, so lonely and hard and uncertain, for group support under authoritarian wings. 

Freedom has a dark side. Our current national dilemma, in this unfolding decade of humiliation, presses us and makes us present to the question of freedom.  It is more than issues of political liberalism—gay rights, women’s rights—that besets us.  It is more than issues of economic socialism—ample education and abundant health care—that concerns us.  It is more than cultural conservatism—unflagging Sunday worship and vigorous voluntary associations– that beckons us.  As important as all these are.  It is more than a highjacked national narrative, more than a collapse of moral conscience and compass, more than the protections of civil society, the customs and ceremonies of courtesy meant to protect us from the pipe bombs of unbridled, unhinged rhetoric, that beset, concern and beckon us.  As important as all these are.  It goes deeper, this our current malaise.  It goes down deep into the caverns and caves of freedom.  How will we live, in hope, with freedom?

Erich Fromm warned us.

He warned us about the dread of freedom:  Freedom has made (us) isolated…anxious and powerless…(which) is unbearable(x)…(One’s) brain lives in the 20th century, but she art of most (people) still live in the stone age(xvi)…To feel completely alone and isolated leads to mental disintegration just as physical starvation leads to death (17)…enhancing the individual’s feeling of aloneness and insignificance (38)…(We) becomes more independent, self-reliant, and critical, (but we) become more isolated, alone and afraid…

 He showed us the historical origins and outcomes of freedom: Protestantism made the individual face God alone (108)…The prinicipal social avenues of escape in our time are the submission to a leader, as has happened in Fascist countries, and compulsive conforming as is prevalent in our own democracy…

 He traced the effects of the lack of hope in freedom:  (for) the individual to escape his unbearable feeling of aloneness and powerlessness…(he has) no more pressing need than the one to find somebody to whom he can surrender, as quickly as possible, that gift of freedom which he, the unfortunate creature, was born with…

 He unveiled, out of his own experience, and touching too our own, the consequent appeal of authoritarianism:  the authoritarian character admires authority and tends to submit to it, but at the same time he wants to be an authority himself…

 He described the impact on persons:  The authoritarian character loves those conditions that limit human freedom…The individual ceases to be himself; he adopts entirely the kind of personality offered to him by cultural patterns (say in rallies?) and he therefore becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect him to be…love for the powerful and hatred of the powerless… (is) fertile soil for the rise of Fascism anywhere (240)

 He pointed to a couple of daily consequences—see if they sound familiar: …to lose the sense of discrimination between a decent person and a scoundrel…the fear of death lives an illegitimate existence among us (245)…

 Beloved.  Be alert, on the qui vive, watchful, be sober, be watchful for nascent authoritarianism.   In the daily denigration and disfigurement of facts, of truth.  In the weekly demonization of ‘others’, of those other, in religion, in race, in nation, in orientation.  In the dishonoring of other seats of power, like the judiciary, like the press, like the churches and other religious communities.  In the steady denial of fact and responsibility.

Yet Fromm offered a word of hope in freedom, what he called positive freedom:  positive freedom consists in the spontaneous activity of the total, integrated personality (257)…THERE IS ONLY ONE MEANING OF LIFE: THE ACT OF LIVING ITSELF… (In positive freedom (one)) can relate (one)self spontaneously to the world in love and work, in the genuine expression of (one’s) emotional, sensuous and intellectual capacities (139)..        

Spontaneity.  Comraderie.  Emotion. Intellect.  Where you come alongside these, according to Fromm’s work, there we might say is a hope in freedom. 

 

Three: Community

We can appreciate, perhaps, a bit of what Fromm said, even in our immediate setting.  The academic world intensifies and crystallizes these tendencies, especially under the aegis and aspect of technology. Spontaneity?  Emotion? Comraderie? Creativity?  These can be hard to find, and to nurture,  in academia.  Consider the rigorous path for the professor, for example.  7 punishing years of graduate school (following on 16 earlier years) lead to the Ph.D.  Another 7 punishing years of junior appointment lead to tenure.  After 30 years, perhaps, one gains tenure.  Think of the commitment to excellence, the attention to detail, in that life work, forged in freedom.  You can stray from the path, but you cannot then complete the journey.  Consider the rigorous path for the undergraduate student at an institution like ours, for example. Begin with earning a 1420 on the SAT, then continue in classrooms and courses where not some but almost all are as able as you. Think of the commitment to excellence, the attention to detail, in that life work, forged in freedom.  You can stray from the path, but you cannot then complete the journey. Further, as Sherry Turkle and others are showing us, we have only the slightest inkling thus far of what the massive newer technologies are doing with our students, ourselves, our world.  We have done a great deal to teach teenagers how to pick up devices, but have done virtually nothing to teach them about how to put them down. 

Thanks to each one of you, for all the challenges of academic life, here at Marsh Chapel, week by week, you sing the song, tell the tale, and ring the bell of freedom!  It is a remarkable, uncanny gift you offer!   The spontaneity of conversation.  The comraderie of communion.  The emotion of song.  The Intellect of faith.  You sing! In four part harmony!  Right here in the heart of a great University!

Real freedom, that for which we affirm Christ has set us free, positive freedom, resounds with spontaneous, physical, emotional, mindful, personal work and love.  The move away from positive reedom comes from alienation, isolation, anxiety, and fear. The move toward positive freedom comes from independence, responsibility, thinking, feeling and willing–forged in the soul. Every one of our lives inhabits two dimensions, one psychological and one sociological, personal and social holiness both.

As the community of faith, then, we want to be and become that place and space where one can listen another’s soul into life, where the urges and longings toward positive freedom are protected and nurtured, where the demonic drives in culture and economy are called out and known by name, where we have each other’s back, where we live and give the benefit of the doubt as a means of grace, where we hold up and hold out and hold onto the freedom of the human being.  A place where, like last night, in the historic nave of this Chapel, the music of joy, the music of majesty, the music of brilliance, the music of gladness—the music of Mozart—plays the accompaniment to our ongoing daily struggle, in freedom, the daily struggle of faith, to withstand what we cannot understand, the ongoing struggle of faith to eradicate violence and religious animus from the earth.

There is hope in freedom, when positive freedom baptizes us in sensuality, emotion, spontaneity and intellect.  Thanks to each one of you, for all the challenges of academic life, here at Marsh Chapel, week by week, you sing the song, tell the tale, and ring the bell of freedom!  May we contine to live by such hope!

Yes, there is hope in freedom, but it comes at cost, and it comes with work.  Jurgen Moltmann appends our benedictus: in Theology of Hope: “Hope finds in Christ not only a consolation in suffering but also the protest of the divine against suffering.  That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience” (p. 21).

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean. 

The Present Moment (2)

Sunday, October 21st, 2018

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Mark 10: 17-34

Click here to listen to the meditation only

Frontispiece

The Present Moment.

 Lift up your hearts in the present moment, to hear the good news within the present moment. 

A word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope.

Hope has two handsome sons, Presence and Pressure.  Both meet you in the Present Moment.

The presence of Love.  The pressure to Love.  The presence of Good.  The pressure toward Good.

I need Thy presence every passing hour;

What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?

Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?

Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

The Present Moment:  The presence of Good.  The pressure toward Good.

Pressure

            Hear good news.  Just as the present moment, for all its dangers and diminutions, reveals presence, the presence of Love, as we affirmed last week, so too the present moment, for all its tweets and humiliations, reveals the pressure of Good, the pressure toward Good, as we affirm this week.  Hope’s second handsome son is pressure.

After worship here at Marsh Chapel last Sunday, you may have noticed that our student mission team set up a table on the Plaza.  They are called MOVE, this team, the acronym of whose actual words I can never remember, but it doesn’t matter.  These our beloved students are ON THE MOVE.  And that is the point, is it not?  They went out to Commonwealth Avenue, armed only with a table, a box of pamphlets, their camaraderie, and also, one guesses, for that present moment, perhaps one other thing: the wind of pressure blowing their lives, like leaves in the breeze, to paraphrase Rowan Williams, toward some Good, toward some Goodness.  They spent part of the day passing out information on how to register to vote.

They were moved to pressure, to press on, to impress, to press on toward the high prize, to do something good.  Who knows whence that sort of impetus emerges?  But it does.  In the present.  In the present moment.  And of sudden you are greeted by Hope’s second handsome son, Pressure.

Notice in our Gospel how the rich young ruler presses.  He presses the point.  He is not satisfied with a generic response, in this case an odd listing and partial assortment of the commandments.  Jesus has answered, giving the points of the law, though notice only some, and notice in odd order.   But in the question, and again in the answer, there is a pressure, there is pressure.  Is this why the church’s memory of the conversation includes the phrase, ‘and Jesus loved him?’ The Good presses the rich young ruler to question.  The Good presses the Lord Christ, in his Risen Voice, Remembered and Interpreted in the Life of the Earliest Church, to answer.  One thing you lack.

There is, in this Present Moment, in every present moment the pressure to goodness, to act in goodness.  We come to church for such a reminder, especially in a national season of the shredding of ceremonies of courtesy, in a national season of the apotheosis of the uncivil.  And a willingness on the part of many to support or countenance the denigration of civil society, and the abuse of inherited forms of culture meant to protect us from our basest selves.

Mark 10

            Look for a moment again at our gospel reading.  Barbara Brown Taylor said once, if memory serves, that the church usually misses the point of this teaching, either by understanding the passage exclusively in terms of money, or by avoiding altogether any discussion of money.   She said further that money is like nuclear power, potent with power for good, but requiring careful management, protections against disasters, recognition of what can go wrong, and a humility in practice.

In the city of Rome, under the thumb of Caesar, Mark in 70ad rehearses Jesus’ lakeside lessons.  Gathered in secrecy, hearing news of a Jerusalem temple in flames, rightly fearing impending persecutions, Mark’s Roman Christians heard hope in these teachings, so frequently as today related to wealth.  If you notice only one word in this passage, mark Mark’s inclusion of “persecutions” (vs. 30).

For there is an urgency to Mark’s passage that Matthew and Luke later left behind.  Mark exudes raw energy under the pressure of apocalyptic expectation.  Sell and give!  Notice the telltale apocalyptic marks:  eternal life (the coming resurrection of the dead); this age and the age to come (the heart of Jewish longing); camel and needle (end of an age hyperbole); none is good but God (the apocalyptic distance of heaven from earth); the reign of God (the essential apocalyptic hope);  persecutions (harbinger of the end); last become first (apocalyptic justice).  But there is no mistaking the primary announcement:  life is found in the refreshing lake water of giving not on the dry shoreline of having.  Yes, you must honor the past, including the commandments.  Yes, we must conserve and protect.  But as Luke Timothy Johnson used to say:  “the tradition of the church is meant to open the future!”  Conserve what you can and protect what you must, then give—develop, give—enhance, give—open the reign of God!  This is what life is all about.  And be shrewd about it.

Toward the end of one remarkable election in California, a leader in LA memorably implored his people to look to the future:  “Think of your future.  Look to the next generation.  See what is out ahead.  Why if you vote for (candidate x) it would be like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders!”  He could speak apocalyptic.

Mark’s Way

         And Mark is clearly an apocalyptic writing, although clarity about this has only fully emerged in the last generation or so.  Mark expects the end of all things in his own time, 70ad and so the Markan Jesus so instructs his followers, 30ad.  In fact, Mark expects the culmination of all things, soon and very soon.  In this regard, and in regard to his understanding of the cross, Mark has some congruence with the letters of Paul.  Given this apocalyptic perspective, should we hear Mark’s words as those of a critic or those of a coach?

The first option, Mark the moderate critic, was most piercingly presented almost forty years ago, by a friend of Marsh Chapel, Dr. Theodore Weeden. It has taken some decades for the force and power of his argument to stand up and stand out in comparison to the work of others.

On this view, Mark combats a view of Jesus that will not accept his suffering, his crucifixion.  Long after the events of Calvary and Golgotha, spirited and strong people, singing a happy song, have caused the earliest church to forget their baptism, or its meaning.  They expect ease, spirit, joy, and, soon, a conquering victory over all that plagues and persecutes them.  Mark says ‘no’.  To say ‘no’ Mark remembers in delicate detail the story of Jesus’ passion, relying on a source, a document he has inherited.  To say ‘no’, Mark pointedly shows the ignorance and cowardice of Peter, at Caesarea Philippi and in Jerusalem.  To say ‘no’, Mark criticizes, diminishes the miracles of Jesus, letting them wind away to nothing as the Gospel progresses.  To say ‘no’, Mark describes the disciples as diabolical dunces.  They didn’t understand it and neither do you, he says.  Mark stays within the fold of the inherited story of Jesus, the gospel of teaching and passion, of Galilee and Jerusalem.  But he does so as a moderate critic of those who are unrealistic about the suffering that continues, from which the gospel does not deliver, any more than Jesus had been delivered from the cross.  Resurrected, yes, delivered, no.  On this view, at the heart of Mark there is a bitter dispute in earliest Christianity (imagine that) about what constitutes discipleship and baptism, and Mark is out to prove his opponents wrong.  As with the alternative, there is plenty of evidence to support this view.

The alternative, the second option, Mark the critical moderate, has in a way been present for a longer time, and, one could say, is still the more dominant, the majoritarian position, in scholarly interpretation of Mark.  The current, culminating presentation of this view is in a two volume Anchor Bible Commentary.  It is written by another person with connections to Marsh Chapel, a fellow once on the faculty of Boston University School of Theology, Joel Marcus, now at Duke.  On this view, things in Mark’s community are not so much at daggers drawn.  There are differences to be sure, but the disagreements are differences among friends.  The Markan coaching does not face strong spirit people, committed to an idea of the ‘divine man’.  Mark is not so negative about miracles.  The disciples are mistaken but not malevolent.  The titles for Jesus are not so tellingly convincing.  The real trouble is not so much in the community itself (perish the thought), but outside, among the potential deceivers of the church.  Hence, on this view, Mark has the job of gently reminding his hearers of the cross, of suffering, of discipline, of the cruciform character of Christianity, as a moderate, a critical moderate, but a moderate more than a critic.

A Critic and a Coach

            In the Present Moment, the pressure toward the Good can come in a voice on the one hand critical, or in a voice on the other hand coaching.   You might think about how you use your voice, now and then, in one form or another.  Children need both.  So do parents.  While the jury is out, still, about Mark, whether more critic or more coach, there is no doubt about his apocalyptic urgency, and there is no doubt about the pressure it applies, in the Present Moment, the pressure to do good, to be good, to practice good, the pressure toward the Good.

            Earlier this month, the paper of record in this country carried two articles, one on a Thursday, one on a Saturday.  Both were written by friends of yours, Marsh Chapel.  Both exhibited this pressure toward the good, Marsh Chapel.  Both were written in part to critique and in part to coach.  Both voices are known to you.

Andrew Bacevich, until just recently a professor at Boston University, has been among you.  You know his voice.  He has been here to teach in our small group, to provide a chapel forum for us, to speak in trenchant terms, terms full of the pressure toward good.  This month he wrote in the NY Times about Black Hawk Down, 25 years later, in his ongoing quest to challenge, to critique, our national reliance on large scale military might.  We might  have learned something, back then, he says.  He presses us.  ‘The contemporary battlefield is more likely to be urban and congested…investment in conventional warfare will continue to have little relevance…policy should consider…that the wars themselves…might be futile.’  And then, the clincher: ‘With a bit more effort, and a generous dose of humility…’ we might have learned these lessons 25 years ago.   Here is a close, critical voice, part of the proven pressure toward good, latent in every one present moment.

Robert Pinsky, former US poet laureate, and a professor at Boston University, wrote two days later, in the same space.  You remember him, Marsh Chapel.  Pinsky came and helped us honor and respect those who died on nineleven, ten years later.  He brought himself, he brought his poetry, he brought his voice, right here onto our plaza, in our 2011 service of remembrance.  You know his voice.  This month he wrote in the NY Times about patriotism.  He presses us.  He is writing for students, including those within earshot this morning, saying, ‘Sometimes you read something when you are young and it stays with you forever’.  He then remembers a citation of George Washington in 1783 ‘in which he described the good fortune of the new nation:  its natural resources, its political independence and freedom, and the Age of Reason of the country’s birth, and age of the free cultivation of letters, the unbounded extension of commerce, the progressive refinement of manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all the pure and benign light of Revelation’.  And then, in some emotion, and with the great skill of a great poet, he simply remembers the story of Peter Rodino, a humble congressman from his native New Jersey, pressed into duty, we might say under the pressure toward the Good, in the Watergate hearings. Here is a close, coaching voice, part of the proven pressure toward good, latent in every one present moment.

You are not alone in the hunger and thirst for the good.  Voices both critical and coaching are among you, to help, to guide, to heal.  Listen for them.  Listen to them.  And learn from them, learn to find your own voice, both critic and coach.

A Question           

            On Monday evening this past week, you may have walked past the cafeteria at 100 Bay State Road.  There you would have seen a lone woman, sitting in a chair.  Her hair gray, her presence little noticed, her age probably making her eligible for Medicare, armed only with a table, a box of voter registration pamphlets, and also, one guesses, for that present moment, perhaps one other thing: the wind of pressure blowing her life, like leaves on the breeze, to paraphrase Rowan Williams, toward some Good, toward some Goodness.  She spent part of that evening passing out information on how to register to vote.  Maybe a couple of generations ago she was member of a student group like MOVE.  Or maybe she is foretaste of what our students will be and do a couple of generations from now, when their hair is gray, and they are eligible for Medicare.   ‘Good for you’ we said to her.  ‘I’m trying’ she replied.

And you?  May I ask you a question, to conclude this sermon?  Will you, before you leave this Sanctuary, consider one thing you might do toward the Good, in the next week, something you have not yet to this moment designed?  In the present moment?

Coda

The Present Moment.

 Lift up your hearts in the present moment, to hear the good news within the present moment. 

A word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope. 

Hope has two handsome sons, Presence and Pressure.  Both meet you in the Present Moment.

The presence of Love.  The pressure to Love.  The presence of Good.  The pressure toward Good. 

I need Thy presence every passing hour;

What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?

Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?

Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

The Present Moment:  The presence of Good.  The pressure toward Good.

  -The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean. 

The Present Moment

Sunday, October 14th, 2018

Click here to hear the full service

Hebrews 4:12-16

Mark 10:17-22

Click here to hear the meditations only

Frontispiece

The Present Moment.

Lift up your hearts in the present moment, to hear the good news within the present moment.

A word of faith in pastoral voice toward a common hope.

A word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope.

Hope has two handsome sons, Presence and Pressure.  Both meet you in the Present Moment.

Hope has two handsome sons, Presence and Pressure.  Both meet you in the Present Moment.

The presence of Love.  The pressure to Love. The presence of Good.  The pressure toward Good.

The presence of Love.  The pressure to Love. The presence of Good.  The pressure toward Good.

I need Thy presence every passing hour;

What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?

Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?

Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

The Present Moment.  

Lift up your hearts in the present moment, to the hear the good news within the present moment.

Presence

‘In Thy Presence There is Fullness Of Joy.’ (Psalm 16).

In the Present, the present moment, come with me, to become open again, open to Presence.   Around you, yes, racism and misogyny and sexism and xenophobia and rapacity and mendacity and perversity and predation.  Yes. So, all the moreso, your being hungers for Presence. Presence, as our Psalm 16 acclaims this morning, the fullness of joy.  Simchat’ my Rabbi and friend tells me.  It means joy. Simchat Torah. Serve the Lord with Joy. Come with me, aside, just a moment.

Come with me, aside, just a moment, to recall one morning, an early morning early in August this year, wherein there was an experience of Presence.

The coffee was percolating in the cottage kitchen.  Wait for it with me, why don’t you, and come sit down on the living room couch.  Through the front open windows you might hear the lapping of the lake water against the shoreline, carried by a steady breeze out of the west, north west.  Most of the time, there, the wind comes from the west, blowing Midwestern weather through us and on to Boston. The lap, lap, lap continued, somewhat in rhythm with and somewhat out of rhythm with, the music of Liszt by radio.  The water and the waves are there all the time, background music to the day every day. We should carry some summer into winter. This day you could hear the surf, though surf is too much of a word for that little lake. Just the steady lap, lap, lap of the water on the shore.

The quiet (can you hear it?) was full.  There was and is no sound, other than natural sound, most of the time, mid-week, in the mornings there.  Little to no traffic on the road or on the water; little to no talk, on the road or on the water. The sound of the silence is the most pronounced audition of the day, in such contrast to our life really anywhere else.  A gull now and then will sing out—our five year-old granddaughter has learned nearly exactly to mimic the gull song, ‘Gina’s’ song, she calls it, as she names all gulls Gina. The murmuring of the blessed classical music, soft but audible, rumbles, morning by morning.  

You are, as I was, unusually, all alone.  It can be discomfiting, especially for the extroverts among us, that lonely quiet.  For some weeks, with two days excepted, we had the full joy of some assortment of grandchildren, as few as one, as many as seven, and their parents, as few as one as many as six, and friends, neighbors, visitors, in sixes and sevens, all.  Jan though had gone away the day before, to see our daughter, to make a call on my elderly mother, to lunch with old friends, and to see her former work colleagues. So the company I kept for a day and night and a day was my own. It can be discomfiting, especially for the extroverts among us, that lonely quiet.  

With the coffee susurrating, sit for moment, and feel the cool breeze through the windows, and hear, though not as a focused listening, the lap, lap, lap of the water on the shoreline.  That morning you could feel and see faintly, a storm brewing out of the west, full clouds coming dark with rain, but still a distance off. I picked up the book I was reading, where it had been left the quiet night before, following a solitary dinner, prepared by, made by, and pre-cooked by Jan, warmed and consumed alone by me.  The book is that of Paul Theroux, Deep South, his masterful journal and reflection on a year of travels due south of his home on Cape Cod.  You may have known him from his earlier book, The Mosquito Coast, and from reviews of his other two dozen.  This one had been casually left by my dear friend Jon Clinch, himself a world renowned writer, author of Finn, Kings of the Earth, and several other novels.  ‘You might like this’ Jon said, following the fireworks of July 4.

That morning, the book was open to a passage about Julius Rosenwald.  Rosenwald became the head of Sears, Roebuck in 1909. He was the son of German-Jewish immigrants.  Most have not ever heard of him. Theroux’s book is in the great tradition of travel books. You may have loved John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie.  You may have loved William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways.  Well, Theroux apparently did too, and set out to visit the least known part of America, to him, the deep south.  He comes along poor country roads, and the stories along those roads, with the clean, bright eyes of a genuinely interested visitor, a Yankee a long way from home.  And he, Theroux, revels in what he finds. By the help of an African American barber, chef, and preacher, he finds the story of Rosenwald. Julius Rosenwald gave his substantial fortune to build rural schools for black children in the deep south.  They have a particular architecture, fit for their role and setting, large glass windows facing the southern sun, open and flexible rooms and walls to be used for many different needs, and a distinctive aspect given by those at Tuskegee who planned them.  How many? Five thousand. There are 5000 Rosenwald schools in 15 states, the first built in 1917. Rosenwald died in 1932. He gave his fortune to poor black children in the rural deep south.

Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

For some reason, with the breeze blowing, and now the dark clouds somehow headed north and away, with Franz Liszt’s meditative music alive and round about (he whose name you can never recall whether to spell with an s or with a z—(which is it choir?)  because—it’s both!), this little account of Rosenwald, in Theroux’s graceful hand, choked me, moved me. I think it would do so for you too.

Once I had a high school meeting set with a black preacher and his church in Syracuse.  My mother, lightly but sternly, said as I left something like this: You should try to appreciate what those good people in that church have had to live with down there on the south side of Syracuse, you want to be respectful of what others have been through. None of us in this country, even those of us educated at Nottingham High School, Bob, or going on Ohio Wesleyan University, Bob, has really ever had enough education about slavery, about what the conditions of that 250 year hell were, about what the ongoing effect to this day in the 150 years since have been, about how this country and its notable capitalism, and the very sky line of our dear city, the making of American Capitalism and every dollar still swirling in its rinse basin today, came in part from stolen land and slave labor, the trail of tears and the middle passage, the five arable states of the new south and 4 million chattel slaves—beaten, raped, lynched, chained—to till it.  Even your or I, Bob, could make money with free land and free labor. And our economy still depends on the same two features, abuse of the environment and abuse of labor, to make the profits demanded by the market. We walk through it every day, and hardly notice. How do we do this? She said.

These are the kind of memories a breeze, a little music, and a quiet morning can conjour.

Now with the coffee almost done, and the reading of Theroux in motion, the lap, lap, lap again in the breeze, the lap, lap, lap again, from the lakeshore, the lap, lap, lap of, well, the present moment.   For three generations now our family has been itinerant, moving from church to church, from pulpit to pulpit, from town to town and from hidden communal misery to hidden communal misery. Every town, every city, has secret failures, as every heart has secret sorrows.  So the lake, the very modest little lake, and the cottage, the very small humble cottage, the north western tip of Appalachia about which the most remarkable thing to say is how little it has changed since 1959, becomes a place of reverie, a place of memory, a place of home life, the place called home.  Home is such a big word. That also means it is a place where hard memories are present and can be faced. Hard things. Accidents. Mistakes. Betrayals. Deaths. Losses. Failures. On this morning, in the lap, lap, lap, and with the Liszt, Liszt, Liszt, and in the breeze, perhaps mainly the breeze, with the coffee brewed, these readily come up to mind in the morning, if they haven’t already made their nocturnal appearance in the buzzard wildness of dreams.  The water on the shore brings a steady reminder that life gets lived in the aftermath of disappointment. The breeze from the west, with and without raincloud, brings the confidence that even the hurt, the shame of the wrong can be endured. The music, light and lingering, brings along the recollection of happiness that is more true for its injury in sorrow, its debasement in waste, its limitation in grief.

Let us stop, here.  In the little air, in the lap, lap, lap, in the dead quiet.  In the present moment. There. This is what the Psalm means. This is what prayer touches.  This is what the divines felt. This is what Ralph Harper wrote about, in his treatise, On Presence.  This is what old Huston Smith then of MIT said of God, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence…We are in good hands, and so it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of love.  This is what Alistair Macleod depicted in his stories of Nova Scotia, concluding, all of us are better when we’re loved.  This may be what my Dad meant when he said that he had never seen anyone die fearing death.  This is what the black cold of the Pyrenees was saying to me, about vocation, in the deep winter of 1974.  This is what you carry into surgery, as the anesthesia kicks in. This is the miracle of the present moment.  Presence. Hope has a handsome son named Presence. Wordsworth: Eternity in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower.  Hammarskjold; ‘God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal Deity, but we die on the day our lives cease to be illumined by a radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder whose source lies beyond all reason.’

Chesterton: the world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder. This is the refutation, at the last, of disenchantment by enchantment.  This is the overflowing giddiness of the getting up morning hour of the day when the stars begin to fall of the of the light shining in darkness that has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory in the face of…the present moment.  Psalms: 1, 19, 22, 23, 33, 46, 51, 61, 95, 96, 100, 121, 139. Psalm 16, in Thy presence there is fullness of joy.

It was only a half-second.  It was only an un-holdable, ungraspable flicker.  It was only the breeze and the book and the coffee and the music, the lake and the Liszt, and the memory and the lap, lap, lap of the water on the shoreline.

Take with you this week a sense of presence.  Take with you this week a feeling of presence.  Take with you this week a quickened apperception, awareness of the gift of one day, one day, one day, lap, lap, lap.  Take with you this week the spirit, given in the present moment. And practice, with Brother Lawrence of old, the presence of the good, the presence of God.  Do so here at Marsh Chapel. Sunday evening, right here, with prayers and spirituals sung by the Inner Strength Gospel Chorus.  Monday, right here, the compline quiet and sturdy liturgy. Tuesday, right here, with creative pause. Wednesday, right here, with a guitar at 11am in the morning and a sung eucharist  at 5:30 in the evening. Thursday noon, right here, and maybe especially, with quiet, silent silence. (The best thing at Marsh Chapel is ’nothing’—we leave the sanctuary open in silence, and open to…Presence.)

And what of pressure, Hope’s other handsome son?   The pressure toward the good, in the question of the Rich young Ruler today—‘what must I do?’.  For that, we must come back next Sunday, when the Gospel of the Present Moment is acclaimed, not only in Presence, but also within Pressure, the pressure to love.

 

Coda

The Present Moment.  

Lift up your hearts in the present moment, to hear the good news within the present moment.

A word of faith in pastoral voice toward a common hope.

A word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope.

Hope has two handsome sons, Presence and Pressure.  Both meet you in the Present Moment.

Hope has two handsome sons, Presence and Pressure.  Both meet you in the Present Moment.

The presence of Love.  The pressure to Love. The presence of Good.  The pressure toward Good.

The presence of Love.  The pressure to Love. The presence of Good.  The pressure toward Good.

I need Thy presence every passing hour;

What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?

Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?

Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

The Present Moment.  

Lift up your hearts in the present moment, to the hear the good news within the present moment.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

We Are One

Sunday, October 7th, 2018

Isaiah 2:2-4

Ephesians 4:1-6

John 17:15-23

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Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord, Jesus Christ.

I don’t know about you, but the last few weeks have had some definite rollercoaster moments for me emotionally. The state of our country and the world in general continues to be in turmoil. Sometimes it feels as though we’re going to continue feeling stressed and anxious forever. But Every once and a while we still experience moments of joy, or at least we find moments of escape. I’ve recently been seeking solace from the stresses in my life through baking and escaping to foreign lands through cooking shows. While eating food is often seen as a comforting act for some, making or learning about how different dishes are made eases my anxiety. In particular, I recently watched a travel cooking show on Netflix, called Somebody Feed Phil. Unlike your normal cooking show where a trained chef demonstrates the complexities of a dish or highlights extremely cutting-edge ways of developing meals, Phil Rosenthal, the titular host of Somebody Feed Phil, takes more of an everyman approach to food and travel. With great enthusiasm he tells you about and shows you all of the great street foods and restaurants that he encounters in cities from Saigon to Lisbon. Although Phil is able to afford this kind of travel because of a successful career in television writing and production, his approach is to encourage the average person to go out and experience the world, because, as he stated in an interview “If people see a putz like me out there, they say ‘oh if he can go, I can go.’” Even if you don’t have the means to travel internationally, Phil encourages you to try new foods in your own city or town and to get to know people from different cultures through their food.

My favorite part of each episode, though, is when Phil has a meal with the family of a friend he knows from the region he is visiting. Frequently not all the guests at this meal speak English, so Phil is left making exaggerated reactions to the food he’s eating to convey his pleasure to his table mates. What I like about this part is what the host is trying to convey: that over a meal, we are all just people sharing in an experience together. In his episode in Saigon Phil quips “You know, you sit down and you eat with people that you’ve just met, and by the time you’re done eating you’re a little bit closer. That’s the idea, right?” It is out of the singular experience of sharing a meal that a community can grow. We can come to know our neighbors, even our global neighbors, just by sitting down with them over a meal because sharing food is an intimate act of trust and love.

Have you ever witnessed a community form? Have you seen the initial, trepidatious steps taken by people who don’t know each other easing into comfortable relationship with one another? Maybe you were a part of such a community-formation. Maybe it was in a church or through volunteering or even in your neighborhood. One minute, people are unsure, reserved, taking the temperature of the room, and the next there’s laughter and conversation. Not unlike the meals Phil shares across the world in different contexts with total strangers, there’s some uneasiness that eventually melts away into friendship. It develops out of patience, connection, and care.

            Every year, I get to observe communities form or take new shapes. One of the unique aspects of working in University Chaplaincy is that the communities formed here are fluid – always changing, especially from year to year. That’s because the student population changes – seniors graduate, and new first year students and transfer students arrive. New students with new identities, perspectives, and experiences to share. The chapel provides places and times for these new students to connect with one another and be in fellowship with on-going students at the university without the pressure of the classroom. It gives a space for spiritual connection, even if that connection is an unconscious one.

            This week I’ve been keenly aware of the presence of the divine I feel when students come together in fellowship. Something as simple as hearing two students in conversation who only met three weeks ago saying “I’ll text you and we can make a plan to go to ‘x’” outside of our normal fellowship activity. Or observing a student who was silent during the first meeting of the year volunteeing to help prepare and cook various parts of Malay Nasi Lemak, our meal for global dinner club this past week, all while interacting with a kitchen full of students. Students staying a half hour or even long after an event ends to continue chatting with each other while washing dishes. Something happens between weeks one and four of our weekly gathering that creates bonds between people, allowing them to engage each other on a deeper level. It is holding that other person in a place of respect with a sense of openness that allows for relationship to develop.

            It is in these points of connection, in relationship and community building, that God resides. We are reminded that Jesus often did his teaching over meals, bringing his community together from all parts of society. Jesus built community out of sharing food with others because of the intimacy it implied. By inviting those who were marginalized to eat with him, Jesus committed revolutionary acts outside the accepted norms of Jewish society. His notion of the need for relationship and community outweighed what the social and religious conventions of the times demanded. The importance of relational identity with others is so important to the Christian identity that Jesus demonstrates it for us time and time again. One of the commentaries I read for this week stated: “One cannot be a Christian by oneself.” Firstly, we are in relationship with God, always. We feel God’s love and grace in our lives; it is our foundation. We are also in relationship with other people in our societies and communities. As Christians we are called to love one another. John reminds us that God is love. Therefore, it seems only logical that it is in and through relationship that God can be experienced.

The history of Christianity centers around the need for community. Back to our roots in Judaism, it is the community of the Israelites that God leads out of slavery and into the promised land. The Israelite community was one based on being the “chosen people of God,” whom God liberates. The Christian community, however, has an expanded notion of inclusion. Through the actions and words of Jesus, we learn that all can be members of God’s community, especially those who are marginalized by the society. Despite national identity, economic status, or even gender, all are equal in the sight of God, as Paul tells us in the epistle to the Galatians. We are unified in our faith in Christ and God, forming the church in the world. But what is the Christian community really, and how are we supposed to be Christians in a globalized world?

While community is important to the core concepts of Christianity and Judaism (as well as many other religious traditions) interestingly, there is no word in Hebrew or Greek that is an equivalence to the English word for community. (Just as a pre-apology, I’m going to try my best with pronouncing biblical Hebrew and Greek in the next few sentences…bear with me). In the Hebrew Bible, the closest term is r’h (ree), which translates to brother or neighbor. In the New Testament, there’s the ekklesia (eck-klee-seea), the church or assembly, hagioi(hag-ee-oy) the community of saints/ or holy ones, the agapetoi (agapaytoy) the brothers/beloved ones, and the koinonia,those in the fellowship and sharing in Christ. When we talk about the Christian community and the values we share, we are most often referring to the koinonia, which speaks to the deep spiritual connection we recognize in each other through our union with Christ and God. Alternatively, there is another word used in the New Testament of as much value when we think about being in community with others. Allelon(Ah-lay-lon) is a relational term meaning “one another.” Primarily used in the epistles in the New Testament, “one another” is the term used to provide guidance on social relations within Christian communities. Christians living in community are called to bear one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2; Col. 3:13) and to build up one another (Rom 1:19; 1 Thess 5:11), and most often cited, to love one another. The community of Christian believers is not joined together by proximity, but by relationship through the holy spirit grounded in a shared belief in Christ Jesus. It is this faith in God through Christ through which the community experiences and expresses grace to one another. It is in this community that they are able to find solace, celebration, and hope.

Today we celebrate World Communion Sunday as a sign of our Christian unity. Started in 1933 by Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, World Communion Sunday grew from a local celebration of church unity and interdependence to a celebration recognized by the Federation of Christian Churches, now National Council of Churches, in 1940.  All around the world, Christians share in the Eucharist on this day as a reminder that our community extends far beyond the walls of our individual churches, beyond our city limits, beyond our countries of origin. We all bring different cultures and perspectives to our global community of Christians, but we all also share in the hope and salvation of Christ. Today is also a celebration of the ecumenicism built between Christian denominations over the past century. The ecumenical dialogue developed before and after World Communion Sunday makes the existence of a congregation like Marsh Chapel possible through the cooperation and affiliation of various Protestant denominations with each other.

In today’s scripture readings we hear about the importance and the beauty of being in community with others. The psalmist reminds us “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” The writer of Ephesians reminds us that we are called to each fulfill our own individual vocations while also seeking love and peace with our community, something that will join us together in the unity of God who is present in all. The passage from John’s gospel speaks to the significance of the relationship Jesus shares with both God and with us. Jesus, on the night that he is sharing his last meal with the disciples, turns to God and prays for the future of the community. Jesus knows what he is called to do in the next day, to give up his life, but instead of fearing what must be done, he instead focuses on his hopes for the community he will leave behind, asking God to continue to protect and sanctify them. It is through the close relationship Jesus shares with God and the community that he projects the unity of the Christian community into the future – “The glory that you have given me, I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” It is then our tasks as Christians to accept the love and grace given by God and employ it as justice and righteousness in the world we live in today.

Do not be mistaken, though, a call for Christian unity is not a call for uniformity which erases all differences and experiences. Instead, the Christian community is strengthened by the diversity present within it. It allows for the voices of the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the oppressed to be heard and valued in our global context, challenging us to create a society where everyone can seek to be liberated from oppression in its many forms. As Christianity has grown globally, it has taken new shapes and forms which speak to the varied contexts in which it has been established. As the global church shifts its center away from the Western dominance it once had, the mission of Christian visions of hope and love continue to be the central focus of the Church. While Sunday worship in Nigeria or Korea may look very different than our service here in Boston, Massachusetts, the grace and love of God sustains all of our congregations to meet our worldly challenges head on with a sense of optimism.

Through celebrating communion together today, we emphasize the presence of God in our lives through Christ. Sharing in the eucharist is a communal act. Even though we may individually receive our piece of bread and sip of wine, we share in the act of eating from the same loaves and drinking from the same cups, just as the disciples did with Jesus at the Last Supper. The acts of worshipping together may not always generate the same sort of connection that having a long meal with someone might – there’s little chance to converse or find moments of individual connection in our service – but it allows us to focus our attention on God’s presence in our lives. It is then out of this recognition of God’s presence in our lives that we are able to find deeper connection outside of worship times – before the service in the Narthex, after worship at coffee hour or our covered dish luncheon, during the week in a fellowship opportunity, or even just getting coffee with someone from the congregation. It is felt when we take the time to get to know our new neighbor who moved in across the street, welcome a newcomer to our monthly book club, or invite a friend to join us in a new context, like church, for example.

While the holy meal of communion fills us spiritually during this time today, it should also remind us that our church reaches far beyond the walls of this building. And no, I’m not just talking about the fact that this service is broadcasted on the radio. What I mean is that it is the people who participate in this service, whether sitting right here in the pews or listening half a world away, going out into the world to share the love and grace of God with others. Ours is a community that pushes back against the norms of what society may expect or demand from us; instead we focus on the justice and righteousness offered through God’s presence in our lives as a guiding force. Our community founded in God’s love helps us to see what is moral and what is amoral in our contexts, and then to move into action to challenge the status quo in the best way to serve our neighbors, whether they are Christian or not. Through upholding our values found in establishing just and unified communities, we come closer to the vision that Jesus holds for us when he prays for us before his death.

So as you leave from this place today, I urge you to continue building the relationships found within this community of Marsh Chapel, but also to bring the knowledge of God’s ever present grace and love into all of your relationships. As we enter into our Holy meal, our Holy Communion with one another, remember that we are one with God through Christ, imbued with the Holy Spirit. We are called to bear one another’s burdens, to build one another up, to love one another, extending God’s love, grace, and sense of justice into the wider world.

Amen.

 Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students