Communion Meditation

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Luke 9: 28-36

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The single striking word in our passage from the Holy Scripture, Luke 9, is ‘departure’.  To be sure, Luke has more broadly added to what he took from Mark 9, written 25 years earlier.   He adds that Jesus went up to pray, giving to the wild scene a liturgically human focus.  He adds that Moses and Elijah spoke together of him, perhaps out of earshot, or in muffled tones, another human touch in what is otherwise a resurrection scene.  Luke adds that Peter and others were sleepy, human beings they, for all the ‘glory’ of the Transfiguration.  He adds a word about their human fear.  He renames, changes, Jesus appellation from Beloved to Chosen, a slight demotion.   Luke particularly adds that they told no one about this, perhaps by way of late first century explanation as to why there were no memories of this.  In all the narrative is utterly human in that we have a tendency to ’mark the places and preserve the moments where we has encountered God’ (S Ringe, loc. cit.).

But ‘departure’, Jesus’ departure, is the striking gospel word in Luke today.  Whether the reference to the coming Jerusalem event, of which his late first century readers would be well aware, was to crucifixion, in Jerusalem, or to ascenscion, in Jerusalem, or to both, or less probably to something other, we are not told.  Luke’s story comes down the mountain faster than Mark’s or for that matter Matthew’s.  The cross is upheld in the chill of glory.   The Gospel of Jesus Christ, and him crucified, announces freedom right in the teeth of disappointment, love right in the pain of dislocation, and, today, grace in the hour of departure.  Grace meets us in departure.  Whether personal or communal, departure opens the way to grace.

First: Personal Departure

You know this from experience when your loved ones die.  Today at 2pm we face the departure of a loved one, at 2pm, Dr. Horace Allen.  We gathered two weeks ago to celebrate the life and faith of my father in law, Jan’s dad, Robert E. Pennock, age 92, whose mind, heart, and soul we honored that day in love.   In light of the painful outcome of the Methodist conference in St. Louis this week, it may be particularly important to recall the best of Methodism by remembering him today.  As the Romans, and my Latin teacher mother would say, exemplum docet, the example teaches.

Bob carried many titles over the years, including Mr., Rev., Dr., Professor, Dean and others, but cherished most closely the titles of Father, Grandfather, Great Grandfather, Husband, and Friend.  We who had known him so, with anguish and hope, gave him over to God.

Bob loved the Lord with his mind.   What an acute, imaginative mind he did possess.  Raised in Syracuse, a graduate of Nottingham High School where he was captain and quarterback of the football team, a further graduate—following service to his country in the navy, 1944—of Syracuse University with a master’s degree in electrical engineering, he then went to Iliff School of Theology and over time earned the equivalent of today’s Master of Divinity, and a PhD focused on the theology, actually the ontology, of Paul Tillich.  He said he saw an article in Life Magazine, ‘They are educating a new kind of preacher at Iliff’, and promptly chose to go off to Denver. He was a natural teacher and a life-long learner, curious, honest, and sharp.

One summer night, years ago, we were hiking back over the sand hill from lake Ontario to the cottage which he so loved, under a bejeweled canopy of stars in the clear night sky.  He stopped and looked long heavenward, saying, ‘So many questions, so many unanswered questions.’  His study of Tillich was thus no accident, for Tillich always began with the questions, bringing the tradition of faith to bear in faithful answers to existential questions.  Into his nineties, Bob was able to preach with head as well as heart.  His ministry, which included pastorates in Onega, Kansas, in Denver, Colorado, in Mexico NY, and in Oswego NY (there also the leadership of the Wesley Foundation He was the best NNY preacher of his generation.  His preaching combined intellectual height with emotional depth, and met the moment, Sunday by Sunday, including November 25, 1963, following JFK’s assassination, with a necessarily re-written sermon that began, ‘We are a nation drenched in sorrow’.  Earl Ledden, who was later Bob’s Bishop in Syracuse, would play the piano for singing when the ministers came together for conference, a humble, gracious man.  ‘That is ministry, to play the accompaniment to people’s lives’, Ledden would say.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind.

Bob also loved the Lord with his heart.  He was a positive, optimistic person, most naturally himself when setting sail, running with the wind.  During an earlier illness, this some many years ago but still a perilous malady, it was striking to hear him say, ‘I will be all right.  I will pray.  I believe in the power of prayer.  I believe in the power of prayer’.  At the heart of his heart were his children, and their children, and their children, too.  He could easily give way to tears when the moment arose and allowed, and was unafraid of emotion, public or otherwise.  Anger did not worry him, neither his own nor that of others, as those of us who occasionally disagreed with him can attest.  He would have agreed with my own dad, who, when such emotion overtook another would say, ‘That’s fine.  It’s worth the price of admission to see him (or her) so worked up.’  It was in his preaching that his heart, too, came through.  In 1980 he preached in the little Forest Home Chapel in Ithaca, and told a story about a boy who wanted his dad to play in the annual father and son baseball game.  But Dad was a terrible ball player, with coke bottle glasses, a big paunch, and couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.  Still, Son persisted and so, in terror, Dad stood at the plate and easily made two quick strikes.  Then he heard a voice from right field calling out, ‘Come on Dad, you can hit it, I just know you can’.  And wouldn’t you know, by some miraculous somehow, Dad swung and hit a little Texas leaguer, a short single into center field. Standing proudly at first base, he heard that same voice from right field, ‘I knew it Dad.  I just knew you could’.  I can hear him telling that as if it were yesterday, rather than forty years ago.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.

Bob loved the Lord with his soul.  He was a Methodist of the veteran liberal variety, who combined, in John Wesley’s way, a deep personal faith with an active social involvement, a weekly Sunday worship hour with a weekday engagement of faith in culture, in society, and in politics.  The full humanity of gay people was affirmed.  The dangers of authoritarian, mendacious Presidential leadership was a given.  The care of the migrant, the poor, those in bitter need, was the first order of business on the Christian agenda, the lifted lamp beside the golden door.  “These are things we have to keep before us, always before us”, he would say, and did preach.   He lived the freedom of the Christian, and could, and did, acknowledge failure, defeat, and mistake, and pray, not with the Pharisee, but with the publican, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’.  On his last day he could mouth a greeting by name and whisper ‘I love you too’.  Would that we all could be so alive when we die.  About eight years ago, on a Boston visit, we talked about death and burial.  He said he would be buried in Richland, far up in the Tug Hill plateau of Northern New York State, and then added, ‘That is so comforting to me, to think of being buried there, under those deep winter snows, lying at peace and quiet under those North Country drifts, under that bright white blanket.’     In that Methodist faith Bob was born and baptized, and in that Methodist faith he is now dead and soon buried.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul.

With mind, and with heart, and with soul, we shall love the Lord our God.

One perceives grace in the hour of personal departure.

 

Second: Communal Departure

Bob’s church, and mine, this last week endured a communal departure, a parting of ways.  In light of his life and minisltry, it may be particularly important today to face directly the collapse this week. Methodists of mind, heart and soulf today face fully the defeat of St. Louis and what Methodism has become.

The death of my father in law preceded by a fortnight the death of his and my church.  The Rev. Mr. Mark Feldmier of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, put it this way:

Late Tuesday afternoon in St. Louis, the United Methodist Church betrayed its most essential and enduring standard for Christian faith and practice: “do no harm.” The events and outcomes of the Special Session of the General Conference have done irreparable harm to the LGBTQ family, as well as to the majority of United Methodists who live in the US and represent a more centrist and generous orthodoxy. It is a sad day as we confront the dark reality of what has taken place.

As I am sure you know, delegates to General Conference voted to retain and reinforce policies prohibiting LGBTQ clergy and same-gender weddings. These policies, and the new consequences for violating them, are barbaric, shameful, and intolerable…The United Methodist Church, as we have known it, died on Tuesday, he concluded.

We gather, come Sunday, with regularity to receive the Lord in bread and cup, and to listen for His Word, a word of faith, in a pastoral voice, toward a common hope.

In that spirit, here are some few, specific, pastoral comments about the conference, offered to the Marsh Chapel community present this morning, and to our global listenership around the world:

With many others, I supported the defeated One Church plan, which would have allowed freedom for local churches with regard to marriage, and for annual conferences with regard to ordination.

Marsh Chapel, with historical ties to Methodism but now an ecumenical University chapel, has and will continue to solemnize marriages for gay people, and has and will continue to employ and deploy gay clergy.  We had another such wedding submission for next year, which we will happily honor, on the day  conference ended. Our full embrace and affirmation of the LGBTQIA community will not change at all, except  that we will strive even further to energize our inclusive ministry here.   Marsh Chapel, as you are doing, do so more and more!

Today, the United Methodist Church is split.  About two thirds of the delegates from the United States supported the One Church plan, and thus supported openness to gay people in marriage and ordination, as determined in churches and conferences.  Opposition came heavily from abroad, especially Africa and the Philippines (NYTimes, 2/25/19) and also significantly from a fundamentalist minority in the USA.  As Dr. Stephen Cady, one of the leading young liberal voices in Methodism today, the senior minister of the largest UMC in the Northeast Jurisdiction, Asbury First UMC, Rochester NY put it: ‘Some in our denomination wish to maintain our current stance but others, like me, desperately wish to change it…Unfortunately our global nature, with roughly half of our denomination residing outside of the US, also means that it takes us longer to progress on social issues like these’.

Whether there will be an actual institutional split, and if so how so, I cannot yet say, but I would not fear it.

As to the fuller significance and effects of this I refer you to the Marsh Chapel sermon, 2/17, (http://www.bu.edu/chapel/worship/sunday/sermons/).  It may be that local churches will begin to look more carefully at what they support in global giving, especially general apportionment funds 1,4,and 7 (world service fund, episcopal fund, Africa University fund).

For those concerned and curious about the process of the conference, here are a few concluding unscientific postscripts:

*43% of votes were from overseas, 30% from Africa alone.

*a 25 vote shift would have changed the outcome; forty potential votes were not even cast (the total vote was 824 out of 864 delegates);

*the 2019 delegates were elected in 2015, but over time  another younger group is coming;

*some progressives may not have supported the One Church plan, preferring to hold out for the perfect rather than supporting an imperfect improvement—you might want to think about that another time;

*bluntly, this is painful, disappointing and disheartening, for all, but especially for those just emerging in life and leadership.  Several students from Marsh Chapel attended the conference in St. Louis, and I am proud of their vocal leadership and faithful embrace of the LGBTQIA community issues.

*United Methodist lay and clergy conference members will want to make a point of attending annual conference this year.  The annual conference, remember, is the basic body of our church. United Methodist elections of delegates to the April 2020 General Conference (only 14 months away) will be held this spring 2019, and it will be crucial, for instance, that some retired clergy who do not always attend conference (but have a vote) do choose to attend, and so hopefully help to move the balance of US votes closer to 100% for acceptance, affirmation, and inclusion.  We can expect no help, support or mercy neither from overseas nor from the fundamentalists.

50 years ago, Methodism was actively engaged in merger discussions with the Episcopal Church: it may be time for moderate Methodism to start there again.

*Last month we visited our oldest parishioner, C. Faith Richardson.  Faith, like Marsh Chapel is rooted in Methodist history, but her branches are the whole oikumene, historically Methodist, functionally ecumenical.  How does it feel to be 103?, I asked. About the same as it feels to be 101, she answered.  Then we discussed the conference in St. Louis.  Faith was the secretary of the 1984 conference, and retyped the Book of Discipline repeatedly on Smith Corona typewriter.  Haven’t they finished opening up the church to gay people yet?, she said.

Hear the broken Gospel: The leaven of grace is obscurely present, in departure, affirms St. Luke.  The leaven of grace is obscurely present, in communal departure, acclaims our St. Luke today.

As in humility we approach the Lord’s table, perhaps the voice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer may guide us:  “The question is how the reality in Christ—which has long embraced us and our world within itself—works here and now or, in other words, how life is to be lived in it. What matters is participating in the reality of God and the world in Jesus Christ today, and doing so in such a way that I never experience the reality of God without the reality of the world, nor the reality of the world without the reality of God. As we travel further along this road, a large part of traditional Christian ethical thought stands like a Colossus obstructing our way.” (Ethics)

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

 

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