The Present Moment (2)

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Mark 10: 17-34

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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. 

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