The Mark of Being Alive

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Zephaniah 3:14–20

Philippians 4:4–7

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Location

‘Worship is the most elementary mark of being alive’ (J Moltmann, 209).   Praise, singing, prayer—the primary forms of worship—are the most elementary marks of being alive.   You want to live.  You will want to find your way to worship, to inhabit its location, to learn its language, and to adopt its listening.

Where we are, our location, shapes who we are, our recollection.  Spaces, places, sounds, scents, tastes—these directly affect, impact who we are.  Location shapes recollection.

For some weeks, off and on, I had been struggling, without success, to remember a name.  I take it you will know the struggle.  Off and on, and who knows the switches for either or both, I would conjure the memory of a person whom I have not seen in a decade or so.  He was an impressive spirit.  A tall African American gentleman with a rich baritone voice, he would attend worship  here, now and then.  His daughter in those years was an undergraduate at BU and on occasion they would attend together.  He was a world-renowned vocalist, and taught voice here at the University.  For some reason, every so often this fall, he came to mind.  But not his name.  I would reach out in recollection, but fall short, and give up, on to other things.   He, my unnamed friend, was a generous, gracious soul, with his talents, his time, and his treasure.  He had founded a small school elsewhere to support recent immigrants.  What was his name?

Then last week, it happened, I found myself stopping in our College of Fine Arts, to bring a greeting to the new dean there and to drop off some extra post cards as invitations to our Lessons and Carols service.  Almost 1,000 of you attended the services, with tens of thousands more with us by radio and internet.  You may remember the experience of praise, hymnody, choral beauty, prayer.  It is the elementary mark of being alive.  I left the cards and loped down the long stair case.  At the turn, I remembered his name.  I hadn’t been trying to remember, but the name came, unbidden—bidden or unbidden, God is with us.  A rush of gladness captured me, in stairwell descent.  His name: Simon Estes.  The recollection of his name:  due to the location of that day, a return to the building where I had called on him in his office, now and then.  The physical power of the physical location gave me the recollection I did not and could not gain elsewhere.

To collect ourselves, we rely on recollection.  You may return to read St. Augustine on this one day.  Being in a particular space is the difference so often between hearing and not hearing, knowing and not knowing, remembering and not remembering, breathing and not breathing—life and death.

Zephaniah and Isaiah both call us to the recollection of praise, of singing, of prayer, the elementary mark of being alive.  Worship.  But here is the blunt, Advent, John the Baptist word: your recollection depends on your location.  To know the Presence you need to be present.  In church.  Somewhere.  All of the unspoken allusions to God, before whom in prayer, we remember ourselves, are conveyed in saving measure, in location.   Here we sing, preach, and pray in the same space, the same room, the same seats, the same sanctuary as did Howard Thurman.  Right here.  We admire him.  We aspire to learn with him.  We hope to acquire his faith, especially at Christmas, when the song of the angels is stilled.   Yet here is the John the Baptist challenge:

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without prayer

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without song

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without hymns

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without spirituals

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without meditation

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without candles

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without study

You can’t very close to Howard Thurman without Scripture

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without gathering

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without community

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without meaning

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without belonging

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without empowerment

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without preaching

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without praise

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without Psalms

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without worship

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without…RELIGION

Language

Our gospel today goes deeper, still, from location on to language.  Worship is the most elementary mark of being alive (J Moltmann, 209).   Praise, singing, prayer—the primary forms of worship—are the most elementary marks of being alive.   You want to live.  You will want to find your way to worship, to inhabit its location, to learn its language, and to adopt its listening.

Not one of us can learn a language without labor, without attention and work.  Think of your Latin conjugations and declensions.  Think of your study of the periodic table, of the Kings and Queens of England, of theorems and formulae.  Worship, the elementary mark of being alive, has a language too, which bears practice, bears learning, bears knowing, bears discipline.

Later last week, a friend  and I were talking. For some inexplicable reason, I asked him to remember the theology he studied in the School of Theology.  He named a book from some years ago, by George Lindbeck, titled The Nature of Doctrine.  Lindbeck was a Yale teacher, and a good writer, too (not that those two are at odds, by the way).  Inspired so I vainly hunted for my own dog eared copy of years ago, hunting in the usual suspect places, four in number, to no avail, and retreating to get a library copy, then sitting in a different posture suddenly spied my own book on the third shelf after all.  Anyway.  Lindbeck produced a couple hundred pages of dense argument, easily summarized in this way.   Faith comes from knowing the grammar of faith, the syntax of faith, the spelling of the nouns and verbs of faith.  Coming to faith is like learning Japanese or Koine Greek.  In worship we learn a new language.  Yes, propositions, doctrine and dogma are present and important (Lindbeck complements the conservatives).  Yes, experience and expression are important (Lindbeck complements the liberals).  But the real nature of doctrine is embedded in the life long struggle to learn your real mother tongue, the language of praise, prayer, worship—the language of faith.  To do so, you have to speak it, to sing it, to utter it, to name it, to lift it.  Or, you won’t know it or have it.  So Lindbeck:

Just as an individual becomes human by learning a language, so he or she begins to become a new creature through hearing and interiorizing the language that speaks of Christ. (62) The grammar of religion, like that of language, cannot be explicated or learned by analysis of experience, but only by practice. (129).

 Language, the language of faith, is crucial.  We might though argue to Lindbeck as well, that his own emphasis benefits too from the others.  Learning a language is meant to prepare one to speak truth, and truth may come in proposition and especially in experience, and that truth may well require changes in inherited language, grammar, syntax and spelling.

Our Gospel prepares us for Jesus, to know Jesus, by knowing his people and his predecessor.  Luke has greatly expanded on what Mark earlier taught about John the Baptist.  Here the Baptist lines out the language of faith.  Be it readily remembered that real religion is never very far from justice (repeat).  What says John?  Turn your neighborly attention to equity, your legal tax work to fairness, your regimental armor to protection.  All of these lines are about justice, economic justice.  The Baptist could have been more economical himself, talking to neighbor and tax collector and soldier, simply by saying this:  tithe.   Such a John the Baptist word.  If everyone tithed we would need no charities, no taxes and no armies.   The language of faith would be the grammar, syntax and spelling of the common hope.  It is the language the world most needs and that which Jesus teaches, from alphabet to sonnet.

So here is the challenge, the very Advent, very John the Baptist, very timely challenge:

You can’t get very close to Jesus without prayer

You can’t get very close to Jesus without song

You can’t get very close to Jesus without hymns

You can’t get very close to Jesus without spirituals

You can’t get very close to Jesus without meditation

You can’t get very close to Jesus without candles

You can’t get very close to Jesus without study

You can’t very close to Jesus without Scripture

You can’t get very close to Jesus without gathering

You can’t get very close to Jesus without community

You can’t get very close to Jesus without meaning

You can’t get very close to Jesus without belonging

You can’t get very close to Jesus without empowerment

You can’t get very close to Jesus without preaching

You can’t get very close to Jesus without praise

You can’t get very close to Jesus without Psalms

You can’t get very close to Jesus without worship

You can’t get very close to Jesus without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to Jesus without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to Jesus without…RELIGION

Listening

 Worship is the most elementary mark of being alive (J Moltmann, 209).   Praise, singing, prayer—the primary forms of worship—are the most elementary marks of being alive.   You want to live.  You will want to find your way to worship, to inhabit its location, to learn its language, and to adopt its listening.

The gospel takes us deeper still, down from language and location into listening.  Right now, you may not be drawn to Howard Thurman.  Right now, you may not even be drawn to Jesus.  But you have no choice about knowing yourself.  And the sermon, we pray with care and omitting any surgical mistakes, cuts to the bone, to the heart, to the marrow.  Worship is about being alive—the elementary mark thereof—in the face of our death.  Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human. Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.    And if you read the Bible, and if you worship in the church, if nothing else then the utter god-forsakenness, the deathliness of death is unmistakable.

Just a few days ago I was sitting in the beautiful relatively new atrium of our Business School (no longer Management, but Business, by the way).  I was waiting there, reading a newspaper.  After a while a young man put down his various devices, eyed my name tag, and sat down next to me.  We began to talk.  Conversation is a grace.  It is a grace.  Prize your conversation now you have it.  After a while—his name too was Robert—he admitted why he had sidled up to me: ‘I never see anyone reading a newspaper.  What is it like?  Why do you do that?’  Well, I gave the usual reasons: ‘I like the fuller length of the articles, I like to be surprised by turning a page onto something unexpected rather than cyber-guided.  I like the texture of the pages in hand.’  It was not a debate or a matter of convincing.  He was happily curious.  And I was glad to be a curiosity.  I invited him to Lessons and Carols.  Here he might find a pastoral guide to listen to him.  Here he might find a friend in the pew to listen to him.  Here he might find a kindred spirit to listen to him, someone who could befriend him even better than the newspaper covered dean who listened to him that day.

When Paul acclaims, so beautifully, “Rejoice….” he has taken us beyond location and language, into a deep listening, a listening of and for the soul.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

It is a question whether in the end there is any real rejoicing that is not always and utterly ‘in the Lord’.  But what makes a lifetime of difference is whether there is someone there to listen when you sing, when you pray, when you worship.  To listen your soul into life.  In worship, you put yourself in earshot of relationship, in earshot of acquaintance, in earshot of friendship.  Yet here is the challenge:

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without prayer

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without song

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without hymns

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without spirituals

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without meditation

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without candles

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without study

You can’t very close to YOURSELF without Scripture

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without gathering

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without community

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without meaning

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without belonging

You can’t get very close to Jesus YOURSELF empowerment

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without preaching

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without praise

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without Psalms

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without worship

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without…RELIGION

Worship is the most elementary mark of being alive (J Moltmann, 209).   Praise, singing, prayer—the primary forms of worship—are the most elementary marks of being alive.   You want to live.  You will need to find your way to worship, to inhabit its location, to learn its language, and to adopt its listening.  So the Baptist preaches, ‘I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’.

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

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