A Call to Faith

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1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26

Romans 12:9-13

Luke 2:41-52

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Frontispiece

The only Scriptural account we have of Jesus’ growth and boyhood is located in today’s reading.  Only here does the Gospel allow us a glimpse of Jesus growing up.  In this one picture of our Lord’s maturation, we find him engaging the great teachers of his time.  After three days they found him the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.

Later ages, and later writings, did not resist the urge to imagine Jesus in his boyhood, clever, magical, boy deity, able to make birds from stones and animals from the very dirt at his feet.  But the Holy Gospel of St. Luke, for which and in which we stand, refrains from wilder speculation.  Only here, just for a moment, does the writer relent and, in the reading meant for the Sunday after Christmas, show us the young Jesus, the young man Jesus, Jesus as a young man, which in some measure he would be for the whole of his earthly life.  He who was to call disciples, now himself, just this once, is a disciple too.  He whose life is the heart of faith, the call to faith, a daily call to faith, for this Christmas moment, is himself so called.

What good news this is for educators near and far, and for grandparents and parents and teachers and all who labor and are heavy laden in the educational projects of our time!  As he blessed weddings in Cana and healers in Bethany, so now Jesus, by his presence and practice, blesses those who teach, who prepare the ground for a lifetime, a lifesaving call to faith.

Jesus is our Lord and Savior, born in a manger.   Come Christmas, He is our transforming friend.  We have gathered, after already much church this week, to pray and listen for grace, because of Jesus, our transforming friend.  We bear witness, today, that Jesus has transformed our life, made us happier and better people than otherwise we would have been without him.  How we hope that people, others, especially young people will experience his power and love, in their own way and time!

E.J. Dionne

A friend down south sent me a copy of an article by E.J Dionne (WAPO, 12/23/18), from a week ago.   It rightly celebrates those who come to church come Christmas, perhaps only then, or only then and at Easter.  Perhaps you have come on Christmas, hoping for—what?, waiting for—what?, ready, it may be to hear a call to faith.  Dionne wrote about the difficulties in organized religion, particularly Christianity, today:  a decline in religious observance, the rise of the ‘nones’ (now a quarter of the population in the US, and 40% of those under 30), about unwelcoming attitudes and practices regarding the LGBTQIA portion of the population, about clergy sexual abuse, about the ‘complicated and compromised structures of churches and denominations’, but went further:

            Christmas remains wondrous, but it arrives at a difficult moment for Christianity in the United States…Regular worshipers can be disdainful of the Chreasters. But these twice-a-year visitors deserve our attention and, I would argue, our respect. Their semiannual presence is also testimony to the enduring hunger for the experience of the sacred…

Dionne then went on to name and cite three people whose work and teaching I have personally known, with whom I have taught and studied, and who have meant a great deal to me and others.  Theology matters.  Dionne’s capacity to call up these three wise persons, for our inspiration, also matters.

One is Gabriel Vahanian:  (Dionne) What the theologian Gabriel Vahanian observed decades ago in his influential book “The Death of God” explains the larger context: “Christianity has long since ceased to be coextensive with our culture,” he wrote, and “our age is post-Christian both theologically and culturally.” I remember Vahanian granting me an interview in his SU Hall of Languages third floor office, one winter day, and his comment, in a beautiful French accent, Ze will of man, it is more inscrutable zan ze vill of God!

One is Peter Berger, whom some of you knew here at BU:  (Dionne)The great sociologist of religion Peter Berger offers a clue in “A Rumor of Angels,” his 1969 book about the persistence of faith in the face of rapid secularization…the stubborn refusal of human beings to give up on the transcendent. I picture Berger at lunch here on Commonwealth Avenue, chastising the Lutheran church he very much loved, and warming to tell a truly funny joke.

One is N.T. Wright, for whom I was a teaching assistant at McGill over three years: (Dionne)The biblical scholar and former Anglican bishop N.T. Wright sees “the longing for justice, the quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationships and the delight in beauty” as human aspirations beyond the material that can be heard as “echoes of a voice” pointing toward God (from Wright’s book, Simply Christian).  I picture Wright both curious and frowning as I guest lectured on the Gnostics, and inviting me to dinner in his Montreal home, with four beautiful growing children, and his desk stuffed in tiny closet under the hallway stairs.  A few summers ago we lunched across the river, and he thanked me for a sermon title from decades ago, What a Friend We Have in Paul. (J)

Jesus had his teachers, and we our own. Vahanian, Berger and Wright, in very different theological voices, would approve Dionne’s reliance on them.  Seeing their books cited was a joyous Christmas gift.  You might like to read them!  My friend (Mr. Art Jester), in sending the article, brought these teachers back to me, and so gave me back a part of myself.  And that is what friends do, they give us back ourselves.  And finally, then, Dionne himself, who preceded us in our room the week before we were at Chautauqua Institution, a summer ago:

(People) show up twice a year because some part of them is in rebellion against a society defined solely by self-interest and calculation, by the visible, the measurable and the tangible. They have an intimation that the world is made up, in the words of the Nicene Creed, of both the “seen and unseen.”…Christmas sketches “a picture of a cosmos capable of love.” (Joseph Bottom).

Are we lovers anymore? Christmas comes along with a question:  Are we lovers anymore, or are we resigned to a post-agapic, post-agape, ‘post-love’ world and life?  (From my point of view the Christmas longing is not only for transcendence, but also and more so for love.) And in the question there is a call.

Romans 12: 9

Might we hear in this a call to faith this morning?  Following the candles lit and lifted, following the sense of the numinous, the moments, fleeting moments of transcendence at Nativity, might there follow, for one or another, a straightforward call to faith, spoken and heard and heeded?

Here we may rely on our Epistle, speaking of teaching moments.  St. Paul leaves speculative, less practical theology and jarringly tells us how to live, in Romans 12.  He outlines a call to faith.  He describes what a life of faith might look like, for you, and for me.

You might not expect such from the author of the rest of the Epistle to the Romans, the one who traced our condition (our sin) from creation through conscience in Romans 1 and 2. Impractical theology there, though most treasured and precious.  You would not expect such from the Apostle who poured out the great watershed (our salvation) from Christ to Cross in Romans 3-5.  Impractical theology there, though pearls great in price, field hidden.  Nor would you expect the 13 lightning bolts of 12: 9 and following from the elliptical, emotional, tent-making, bachelor, spit-fire—what a friend we have in Paul!—who unveiled Spirit, Holy Spirit, in the freedom and grace, in Romans 6-8,  who wept and conjured and pleaded about his own extended religious family in Romans 9-11.  Impractical theology, there and there, though the high water mark of all his writing, a Spirit interceding for weakness, speaking of love and need.  Imagine your shock.  Not sin, not salvation, not Spirit, not synagogue, come Romans 12: 9.  Rather, some utterly practical, applicable theology.  Say, a Christmastide call to faith, especially for those who may have come by only at Christmas, just this Christmas.

Romans 12: 9ff,  the ‘Pauline 13’ may be your best threshold, liminal line, front door response to the question, ‘Can you help me get going on this?  What does it mean to hear a call to faith?’

What does it mean to hear a call to faith? It means to LET LOVE BE GENUINE.  All these, note well, are plural imperatives, communal commands.   The command in Genesis ‘be fruitful, multiply, fill the whole earth’ is not an individual demand.  Your family doesn’t need to do so alone, though Samuel and Susanna Wesley certainly did their best.  It is communal.  You all.  All you all.  In fact, given our ‘limitations’ (being kind here), there is no way for us individually to accomplish such commands.  Not all love is genuine.  Not all is from the heart, nor true, nor durable, nor real.  But it is our call, to be lovers in a post-agape world.

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means to hate what is evil.  Notice the firmness in Paul’s flexibility, the vagueness in his certainty.  In sin, salvation, Spirit, and synagogue he has now confidence that—for our own time, we shall know the place of hatred and the outline of evil.  Implied here:  new occasions teach new duties.  Not all of life is good and clean.  Some is, some is not.  We are free, nay called, to hate evil.  You overhear Amos:  ‘I hate I despise your feasts’ (5:23).

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means to hold fast to what is good.  Hold fast to what is good! Notice again the firmness in Paul’s flexibility, the vagueness in his certainty.   Of one odd Scriptural admonition, Krister Stendahl said, ‘I believe it is the Word of God, but not the Word of God…for me.’  Time makes ancient good uncouth.

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means to love one another with mutual affection, brotherly affection, a bond that is fraternal, sororial, militant if not military, visceral and reciprocal.  Real affection is mutual.  Affection wherein one party has all the say and the other does all the work is not affectionate.  It is affectionless, affected, not effective.

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means to outdo one another in showing honor.  Creative generosity, happy hospitality, courage in counting others better, here is our way.  Forebear one another in love.  Light, salt, sheep:  people need to see you giving honor, taste the spice of your commendation and expect willingness to honor to be shorn, clean cut, readily recognizable.

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means not to lag in zeal, to be ardent in spirit, and to serve the Lord.  These three dicta largely place before you the directive to get yourself out of bed, into some clean clothes, over to Marsh Chapel, and be seated in a pew, come Sunday.  A walk in the country or on the beach is good. Turning on the radio is good.  People have so many reasons not to go to church.  Some of them are quite good.  Others range from the pitiful to the hilarious.  Hear a call to faith, and come to worship!  Your sister, here, needs the encouraging support of your zealous presence.  Your brother, here, needs the example of your ardent spirit.  His service is perfect freedom, and this service is one hour.  People become so lackadaisical about worship:  and I am not only speaking of us academics (J).  In a lifetime, you have 4,000 Sundays, 1,000 haircuts, 60 income tax returns.  And 525,600 minutes ayear.  Zeal, spirit, service, Sunday:  prize your time now you have it!

To hear a call to faith, and to heed, is to ride the waves, in community, of shared hope and pain and prayer.  Hope carries us beyond pain through prayer.  Pain drives us hard back onto hope in prayer.  Prayer brings us up, out, forward, and through whether in hope or in pain.  When we have hope, we celebrate, as a community.  When we have pain, we endure, as a community.  Be constant, steady, regular, punctual, reliable, disciplined, in prayer.  This is an old saw, but a true one.  A man on Fifth Avenue asked,  How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  The right response:  Practice, practice, practice.

A real call to faith? The Apostle reserves the two toughest communal challenges for last, one about money and one about time.  Time and money, money and time.  On money: You will take one tithing Christian for every 10 of the born again variety.  You will take one tithing Christian who remembers the ministry of the church in her will for every stadium full of political praying Christians.  You want to see less hat and more cattle.  A Christian vision along our southern border, say, will include a recollection of the Monroe Doctrine teaching us to care especially for our hemispheric neighbors, a recollection of the Marshall Plan, and what can be done to the benefit of all to reconstitute fragmented nations and communities, a recollection of the love poem of Emma Lazarus at our front door. Contribute to the needs, not the irresponsibility but the needs, of the holy community, near and far.  Our BU Business School and our BU School of Hospitality serve the same ends:  the nature of community.  Recent deans of both, we are proud to say, have been active here at Marsh Chapel, with exemplary faithfulness.  On time:  Hospitality is to time what generosity is to money.  Hospitality is how you spend your time (such an odd but choice phrase in American English).  Hospitality:  the making of the bed of friendship, the cooking of the meal of companionship, the pouring of the bath of empathy, the cleaning of the linens of suffering, the embrace of the journey through life:  welcome home, how was the trip?, let’s see your photographs.  Hospitality is to time what generosity is to money.  Practice.  Practice!  You will get better at both with time.

Coda

Here is your Christmas call to faith.  If this were a Methodist revival, we would line this out like a hymn for us to sing.  If this were a black church we would call you to response in call and response.  If this were Fenway Park we would start the wave or sing Sweet Caroline.  But this is Marsh Chapel, so we will just ask you, encouraging your memory, to remember together, entering 2019:  Romans 12: 9-13.

Let love be genuine

Hate what is evil

Hold fast to what is good

Love one another with mutual affection

Outdo one another in showing honor

Never lag in zeal

Be ardent in spirit

Serve the Lord

Rejoice in your hope

Be patient in tribulation

Be constant in prayer

Contribute to the needs of the saints

Practice hospitality

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

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