Archive for August, 2019

Sunday
August 25

Weight of the World

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 13:10-17

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Let there be peace among us and let us not be part of our own or another’s oppression.

It was a perfect late fall day.  You know one of those days where the warmth of the sun on your face and the light jacket that you are wearing has everyone remarking to each other that it looks like a mild New England winter may be in the making.  “If it could feel like this in February, that would be wonderful”. Nodding in agreement with the full knowledge that New England winters never work like this.  

I had been ordained to the priesthood two months prior and was serving as an assistant priest in a parish west of Boston, the beginning of the church year was in high gear.  Parish activities were fully underway, church school, bible study, pastoral response ministry, cooking lunch for those on the margins, the resale shop to name a few of the goings on.  

That day I had just returned from visiting Ellen one of our homebound parishioners.  While her body didn’t allow her to attend Sunday worship, her mind was sharp, and her quick wit was always provided a delightful visit

I walked into the office and our parish administrator said “Rob called and said his son was gone and is sobbing uncontrollably”.  “He want either you or the rector” to call him immediately. I must note here due to the sensitivity nature of the story, I am using pseudonyms.  Rob’s and his family were a fixture in the town. His wife was his high-school sweetheart, his sons were smart, popular, and handsome and played a lot of sports. I called and said “Hi Rob, M said to call you”.  Rob replied: “my son is gone, my son is gone” still sobbing uncontrollably. I said: “I am on my way to your house right now”. On my way out the door the rector was getting out of his car having run out to meet with someone and grab a sandwich.  I said “hand me your sandwich, Rob just called and said his son is gone, I was on my way to the house but feel it is better if you go”. “I’ll stay here and hold space”.

The rector called me a little while later from Rob’s house and said that Rob’s son who was a freshman in college had taken his own life.  It hit all of us like a brick wall. Rob’s wife and his mother were both in shock. The entire town was in shock. News travels fast in a small town.  Many of our youth group members and their friends came to the church and wept openly. Many parents came to the church and wept openly and held their children close.  Many people we had never meet came to the church as a place of solace. 

Later that evening I was sitting in my office which overlooked the side street where the church was located  an saw three police cars and an ambulance pull up and run into a house three doors up. I only saw flashlights scanning a corner room when more students came into my office.  We found out the next day another young person had taken their life. In the following weeks there would be additional young people who would take their own lives. The air hung heavy everywhere in the town.  Parents were fearful, youth were fearful. The schools partnered with the town and houses of worship to be with each other. To provide support, to hold space, to offer a shoulder or a meal, to provide love. An entire town was weighed down with grief.  

I don’t know if the expression “we made it through” is an apt description.  However, we were all bent over carrying the weight of the world, the weight of grieving parents, the weight of grieving young people, the weight of an entire town.  What I do know is that people in this town and surrounding towns came together, supported each other, cooked for each other, held each other, cried with each other, held space for each other when on some days that was all that was all we could offer.  Rob and his family have moved out of the town but is still active in the church and he serves on a foundation for suicide prevention. The school system and houses of worship still work together most recently to address the opioid epidemic among young people.  A tragedy brought people together. It is love and an awareness that no one should have to shoulder anything alone that keeps them together.

I want us to try something this Sunday.  You know they say that when we are tense we tend to hold our shoulders up near our ears.  So try this, hold your shoulders up to your ears in a tense position. Then try to move your head to the left, now to the right.  It’s hard right? Now try and move your body, to the left, to the right. It’s hard. Now let go with an exhale.

There is an expression “he / she looks like they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.” What we just did was an example of that statement.  

When you are carrying the weight of the world it is hard to move.

We don’t know what weight the bent over woman was carrying: perhaps she was the victim of some sort of oppression, perhaps her binary pronoun did not match their non-binary authenticity, perhaps she was the victim of domestic abuse.  If it wasn’t for the fact she was bent over she would just have been another woman going on with her day to day activities.  

But Jesus noticed that she was carrying the weight of the world and had been for so long that people assumed that she had an infirmity.  But Jesus sees her suffering and he heals her on the Sabbath. Notice here that Jesus approaches the woman. Not the usual healing stores of the infirmed approaching Jesus for healing. 

In the second half of the Gospel the woman recedes from the narrative and we move into Jesus’ encounter with the leader of the synagogue. It’s not the healing that concerns the leader of the synagogue, it’s that Jesus heals on the Sabbath day.

The Sabbath was meant to be a complete day of rest as God had rested on the 7th day.  No work was to be done; no farming, no fishing, no shopping, no cooking, no healing.  The leader was caught up in the when’s and the where’s of the letter of the law by pointing out that this was not the day.  Pick another day to heal. But Jesus saw the same law much differently. The law did not trump God’s action when it came to God’s children especially this child of God, the daughter of Abraham.  From where Jesus stood, what better way to honor the Sabbath than by setting a captive free?

This is why he came after all.  Early on in Luke’s Gospel Jesus made know his work in the world as he read the words of Isiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18-19. 

The invitation that Jesus gave the woman who was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders is the same invitation he extends to us today.

Jesus says: Stand up!  Breathe and let your shoulders down with whatever the weight of the world that you are bearing.

He invites us to stand up and be transformed, and to be released from the things that leave us bent over, feeling low and less than, to be released from whatever bondage messes with our self-worth and our self-esteem.  We are invited to come from out of the shadows and valleys, and into the light of God’s amazing and healing love.

So many times we try to put our best foot forward and never let on how burdened we may really feel.  Some of us come into a place of worship with our brokenness and we feel that if we keep a smile on our faces and pretend that everything is alright no one will ever know the weight that we are facing.  Once inside places where we think we are safe we still are unable to look up and see the world around us. We may feel alone or forgotten. We may struggle to see and remember that God is present. But like the woman who stood tall in the synagogue that day, we are the children of a loving and caring God.  God’s grace working among us and through us helps us to stand up straight.

This week in a news release from the Public Affairs Office of the Episcopal Church the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry and the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Southern Virginia, The Rt. Rev. James B. Magness have invited Episcopal Churches to take part in a national action to remember and honor the first enslaved Africans who landed in English North America this week in 1619.  The Bishops have asked that Episcopal churches toll their bells for on minute today at 3:00 pm Eastern Time.

To quote Bishop Curry “I’m inviting us as The Episcopal Church to join in this commemoration as part of our continued work or racial healing and reconciliation.  At 3:00 pm we can join together with people of other Christian faiths and people of all faiths to remember those who came as enslaved, who came to a country that one day would proclaim liberty. And so we remember them and pray for a new future for us all.”

Bishop Magness in his response says “ The 2019 commemoration of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to North America is for me a highly personal occasion.  As a descendent of slaveholders, and as a white male who came of age in the racially polarized south during the 1950’s and 1960’s, I am painfully aware of my own complicity in furthering and perpetuating the subjugation of my African American brothers and sisters.  At a time when the racial divide in this country seems to be growing rather than diminishing, we are in dire need of a moment, an event when we can stop and take stock of our responsibilities to bring races together, perhaps in a new manner that truly is an embrace of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ”.

The Rt. Rev. Susan Goff, bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia further notes “The first African people were brought to this continent in harrowing and dehumanizing circumstances.  As we remember the 400th anniversary of their survival, I pray that we will do the hard work of reconciliation that God longs for us to do.” “God forgive us. God give us courage and resolve. And God bless us.”

On the cover of the The New York Times Magazine Section of August 16th there is a grey hued photo of water and the caption below reads “In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia.  It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. American was not yet America, but this was the moment it began. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the 250 years of slavery that followed.  

The 1619 Project, a major initiative from The New York Times was born to not only chronicle that day but to place the consequences of slavery at the center of a larger story that we tell ourselves about where we are as a country.  You can find the entire article and supporting and educational material on The New York Times website.

My sisters and brothers, I want to tell you: there is no day, week, hour or moment that the God who formed and created us does not see our plight or hear our cries.  Our God energizes us and gives us hope no matter what trail, burden, or injustice we might face. And God gives us one another to share in that hope.

I would like to stand before you and preach that we are beyond being bent over carrying the weight of the world but we all are aware that recently we have witnessed firsthand the actions of the weight that is being pressed down on innocent children, the weight being pressed down on those who feel that they are not heard, the weight of families whose loved ones have died as a result of guns violence.  We are never in a position in God’s eyes to oppress another, belittle another, scare or gaslight another or to act like another is less than. That thought that it doesn’t happen here, it won’t happen here, it doesn’t apply to me disconnects us from the love of God and from our neighbor.

Like so many prophets known and unknown, past and present, like Jesus himself, we have been put on this earth so that we might find a way to ease one another’s pain and release from bondage and set them free, to raise up people and children who will stand tall knowing that they are precious children of God and worthy to share in God’s love.

It was a Sabbath day when the bent over woman was told to stand and stand she did and she praised God.

With God’s help, any day is a good day to help others to stand.  Amen.

– The Reverend Dr. Karen Coleman

Sunday
August 18

Summer Reverie

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 12:49-56

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Ant

                        The beauty of summer, sub specie aeternitatis, and particularly in a climate, like yours, long in darkness and deep in cold, the beauty that is of the four score summers God gives you, at the largest extent of God’s favor, is itself a matter for parabolic teaching, in the spirit of the Gospel for the day.  Let us meditate together today for a few minutes by taking a homiletical walk, down a dusty summer road, watching for a little beauty.   In the mind’s eye, and with the sun upon our backs, let us meander a moment, and see what we can see.  After all, Jesus taught in parables, ‘teaching not one thing without a parable.’

Start small.  There in front of your left moccasin moves a lonely red ant, the lowliest of creatures, yet, like a Connecticut Yankee, bursting with the two revolutionary virtues, industry and frugality.   Benjamin Franklin wrote, admiring such frugality and industry, and dubious of much dogmatic preaching, “none preaches better than the ant, and he says nothing.”  A good reminder.

While we step around the ant, the little insect recalls others:  grasshoppers, flies, locusts.   Simple creatures.   Some of our friends prefer the heat of the west, and its insects, to the rain of the east, and ours.  The locusts, burning dry heat, flat arid landscape, and lack of water, out west, would seem to offer no competition.  Yet, some love the virtue of the good people known there.  Some like the simple rhythm of town life, and enjoy the simple summer gatherings—reunions, little league, band concerts, parades. “The people there—they are folks with good hearts.”  And as Jesus taught his students, “if people have some measure of goodness themselves, think how good their maker must be.

Maybe that is the beauty of summer, to pause and appreciate simple, good people, folks with good hearts.

Berry

                        We can stop up the path just a bit.   Raspberries, blackberries, all kinds of wild fruit are plentiful now.  Jesus taught us to ask, simply, for bread and a name.  We daily need food and forgiveness.  Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we forgive all who are indebted to us.  What bread does for the body, pardon does for the soul.   One of the gifts of summer is the time and leisure to remember this.   A church should be fullest in the summer, for this reason, this recognition of our ultimate needs.

Our neighbor has baked some of these wild berries into morning muffins.  We stop to savor them, with butter and coffee.   We listen to one another along the path.  So we are nourished, by one another, and made ready for the next steps in the journey.

Maybe this is the beauty of summer, to pause and make space for real worship, for that which can feed our hungers, and set us free for the next adventure.

Fence

                        Up ahead there is an old fence.  For a river to be a river, it needs riverbanks high enough to contain the flowing water.  For a lake to hold its integrity it needs a shoreline that stands and lasts.  For a field to retain any semblance of usefulness, it needs fences to mark its beginnings and endings.   For an individual to have any identity one needs the limits of positive improvement, as Jesus taught about perseverance, and of protective caution, as Jesus taught about times of trial.  For a life to have meaning and coherence, it needs those riverbanks, shorelines, fences, and limits that give life shape and substance.

We can spend some summer time mending fences.  Especially at a time and across a country so keenly divided, a house divided against itself.  It is hard work, but utterly crucial. Keep your friendships in good repair, and mend the fences where they need it.    Think, heal, write, love.

Some years ago, I came by this same old fence.  I was walking with my dad, as it happened.  We had some coffee and a muffin.  Then we started off together, down the old road, he to walk with a gnarled walking stick, and I to jog after my own eccentric fashion.  But for a mile up to the same fence, to the place where the road parts, we walked together.  We shuffled and talked a little,  remembering the name of a former neighbor, spotting a new garden planted, making a plan or two for later on.   We remembered an old friend, a old style doctor, long dead.  He remembered that Dr Thro came to visit him the day his mother died.  “It’s hard when your mother dies,” he said, “it gets you right in the chest!”  I remembered Dr. Thro swimming the length of the lake and, while he did so, barking various orders at the universe and some of this patients along the shoreline, riverbank, fence—along the virtuous limits that make a life.   We came to fork, one taking the high road and one the low, and with that an embrace and a word and a glance and we were alone again.  Now, along that fence, summer by summer, I walk with my dad again, feeling him beside me.

Maybe this is the beauty of summer, to set limits and keep them, to mend our fences and protect them, to honor one another in faith and love.

Cloud

                        This is a clear day, in our reverie, but even so there are a few dancing clouds, white and bright.    We try to make sense of the summer, and to make space for the summer, and to honor this season, one that brings together meteorological splendor and theological insight.    In our chapel, we put together different summer experiences—a wedding and luncheon one day, a talk on Summer reading another, a brunch to honor parents, dads and all, a singing Vacation Bible School for the Young and Young at Heart, a Holiday Brunch, an annual summer national preacher series, and fellowship each week on the plaza–to allow meteorology and theology to dance well together.

There is a dimension of possibility alive in the summer that is hard to approximate in the rest of the year.  We alter our summer habits, not at all to suggest that devotion is less central now, for in some ways summer ought to be the most spiritual of the seasons, but rather to accommodate our life to the necessary rhythms of life around us.

It is astounding to hear again in the Gospel that the kingdom of heaven is hidden, small, lovely, precious, immaterial, consequential, and secret.  But so Jesus teaches us, parable by parable. Summer is the season and devotion is the focus of all such wonder and possibility.

Maybe this is the beauty of summer, to pause and allow a fuller consideration of all the possibilities around us.

Breeze

                        A summer wind accompanies us as we walk farther down the dirt road.   A fawn—or was it a fox?—darts into the brush.  The smell apples, already ripening, greets us at the turn.  More sun, bigger and higher and hotter, makes us sweat.

I guess every family has a family secret or two, that one subject that dominates every present moment by it the sheer weight of its hidden silence, that one taboo topic that somehow screams through its apparent muteness.   Daddy’s drinking.  Junior’s juvenile record.  Grampa’s prison term.  The so-called elephant in the room.  True of nations, too, and businesses, and projects and even churches.  You find it, finally, by asking gently about what is feared.

The human family has this same kind of family secret.  Something we avoid discussing, if at all possible, something that makes us fearful, something that dominates us through our code of silence.  It is our mortality.  Our coming death is the one thing that most makes us who we are, mortal, mortals, creatures, sheep in Another’s pasture, not perfect because not perfectible, the image of God but not God, “fear in a handful of dust”.  Yet we are so busy with so many other things that this elemental feature of existence we avoid.

In the face of death, we turn heavily upon our faith.  It is the steady and warming wind, the breeze of the Holy Spirit, that keeps us and strengthens us all along the road.  Here is the argument.  If your children ask you for something, do you not provide it?  And you are evil!  (Not to put too fine a point on it!)  Imagine, then, how much more God will provide for the children beloved of the all powerful, holy God.  You are loved, beloved, graced, embraced—a child of the living God.

Maybe this is the beauty of summer, to number our days that we get hearts of wisdom, to measure the mystery about us and give over our imaginations to a consideration of our limits.

Neighbor

                        Walking along, you may conjure or contract a traveling bug.  Shall we drive north?  A popular refrain in Montreal runs like this: “Canada could have had the best of three worlds: British government, American industry, and French culture; instead, Canada collected the worst of all three: French bureaucracy, British economics, and American culture!”

But don’t you believe it. As that proverb’s tangled contents and tone of wry self-criticism tell, Canada has a great deal to offer you and me. We can learn from our northern neighbors. This is part testimony and part admonition: Take a look at the Dominion of Canada. In particular, let me suggest three things that we can bring across the border.

First, there is the Anglican Church of Canada. Its influence far exceeds that of its sister Protestant Episcopal church in the United States. Though still statistically small, Canadian Anglicanism in one sense is the ecclesiastical leader of its land. We United Methodists-especially those out of the Methodist Episcopal tradition-need to hear the voice of the Church of England. After all, we are called to honor our father and mother; where would Methodism be without its Anglican mother? In this age when theological judgment is so frightfully difficult, the history and tradition and liturgy of this parent church have much to offer us. To take just one example: We here south of the border make much of religious experience. But there are some things that should not have to be learned from experience. The richness of our Anglican heritage can remind us of this.

Second, there is Dr. Douglas John Hall, professor at McGill University in Montreal, former student of Paul Tillich, and author. His book Lighten Our Darkness sounds like a voice of realistic truth crying in  pious wilderness. For example:

The test of theological authenticity is whether we can present Jesus as the crucified. To be concrete: Can one perceive in the Jesus of this theology a man who knows the meaning of meaninglessness, the experience of negation, the anguish of hopelessness? Does he encounter the absurd, and with trembling? Would a man dare to confess to this Jesus his deepest anxieties, his most ultimate questions? Would such a Jesus comprehend the gnawing care of a generation of parents who live every day with the questions: Will my children be able to survive as human beings?…Will there be enough to eat? Will they be permitted to have children? Would he, the God-Man of this theology, be able to weep over the dead bodies of little children in Southeast Asia and Brazil, as he wept over his friend Lazarus?…Would he be able to agonize over the millions of other beings-not quite little-children, fetuses-for whom there was no place; and over the mothers…Could he share our doubt: doubt about God, about man, about life, about every absolute? Could he understand why we cling to expectations that are no longer affirmed or confirmed by experience, why we repress the most essential questions? Would such a Christ understand failure? Could he participate in our failure? Or is he eternally above all that?

Douglas J. Hall, Lighten Our Darkness: Toward an Indigenous Theology of the Cross

(Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), 211-212.

Third, there is the United Church. It was formed in 1925 as a union among Methodists, some Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and other Protestant groups. Today it is a church of some 2 million members (in a country of only 30 million), built out of a combination of Methodist and Presbyterian policy. It is not a church without problems. But for those of us who are still interested in walking a little further down the road toward ecumenism, the experience of the United Church in both its victories and defeats offers a glimpse of what our future might be like.  Its predecessor denominations, including Methodism, gave up their inheritance for a new future, gave up their name and habits and protections, for the joy of a better future, a church not only with a yesterday, but with a tomorrow.

Canadian tourism commercials entice us to the natural, scenic, and cultural wonders of Canada, our neighbor to the north, le Europe prochein“the world next door.”  On a dusty, dreamy summer walk, I believe, we have at least three other reasons for interest: Anglicanism, Doug Hall, the United Church. Take a look.

Maybe this is the beauty of summer, to nourish our souls in the heart and heat of a looming decade of humiliation, with still nine years to go, and to learn from our smaller, little neighbor due north.  Sometimes it can good to fall in love with the soteriology next door, come summer.

You

                        May the Good and Gracious God, in the beauty of holiness, make of all of us attentive people, simple and true in our virtues of the heart, nourishing and nourished in pardon, disciplined by hard even bitter fences of peace, inspired by gracious clouds billowing and high, and supported all the day long by a summer wind, a spirited faith in the face of death, and a bright willingness to continue to journey, travel, learn and grow.  May we find a little summer beauty in the ant, the berry, the fence, the cloud, the breeze, and the neighbor.  The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

Sunday
August 11

Alive To Possibility

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 12:32-40

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A Word of Faith

            In faith, you are alive to possibility.

The haunting portrait of Hebrews 11, as much as any other passage of Scripture, calls out and calls up to us, to you:  in faith, you are alive to possibility.   In the imagination of the Biblical Writer of Hebrews, unknown to us, himself anonymous, there is the pantheon of those who came before us, alive to possibility.  They waited, and did not see.  They expected, and did not receive.  They looked forward, but were not satisfied.  But.  They were alive to possibility, which is faith, being alive to possibility, and which is daunting, haunting, searing and wearing.  Faith closed the door to apathy and ignorance as choices for living.   Faith commands the road forward, a road of heavy heart, and daily dismay, and earthly ennui—awaiting like those figures of old, a better world, a better day, a better life.  They died without seeing it, in full.  But from a distance, waiting, they saw and greeted.  On those days when you are tempted to throw in the towel, to retreat, to shuffle off the mantel of possibility, look back for a moment, and remember all those who lived in faith, alive to possibility, even and especially when that love was at least temporarily unrequited.   The promise and the task of our life in community, of your life at its best is just this:  in faith, you are alive to possibility.

My father, dead now 9 years, had a salty way of speaking truth.  One year he graciously came to play in a golf tournament our church had set up as a fund raiser for mission and children’s work.  About 50 men spent the day riding around plunking balls into the woods, or beyond, hoping against hope that our proven ineptitude for the game would somehow be momentarily overcome by unearned prowess.  This did not happen, not any year.  Late in the day, with a 25 foot put looming, I said, ‘Dad I could sink this.’  He answered, ‘Yes, son, you could.  But you won’t.  He was right in the second phrase, and also right in the first.  You could.  In faith, we are alive to possibility, even when we cannot see it, and do not calculate its immediate arrival.  Perhaps especially then.  Faith is painful, for it includes living with endless contention, intractable difference, and seemingly incurable illness, all under the lasting horizon of the possibility of something different, better, good and right.  Yet, as yet, unseen.  Today, across this great country, one might say, we feel this keenly.  Faith—things hoped for, not seen.

The strange world of the Bible, in the large much stranger than we usually account it, come Sunday, opens us again to this same ringing affirmation in Luke 12.  Be alert.  Be prepared. Live on the Qui Vive.  For you never know.  The earliest rendering of this may have been in the apocalyptic teaching of Jesus, awaiting the coming of the Son of Man himself.  But the clearest rendering comes from decades later, as the church prepares itself in the face of, shall we say simply, difficulty.  The waning but not yet absent expectation of the Messiah’s return, and soon and very soon, prompts commands about discipleship, about heavenly hope, about impending judgment, about the middle of the night.  And the later still and abiding rendering, ours too today, on top of what Jesus may have said, and on top of what Luke clearly wrote, say 85ad, is just this.  To live as a community in faith, to live in faith is to bear the cross of possibility:  in faith—and you have no choice having been captured by the confession of the church, and the gift of faith, for faith is always and ever and only a gift—in faith you are alive, painfully, to possibility.  It is true.  Things could be a whole lot better.   Isaiah once foretold it.  Wash yourselves.  Make yourselves clean.  Remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes.  Cease to do evil.  Learn to do good.  Seek justice.  Rescue the oppressed.  Defend the orphan.  Plead for the widow.  The Biblical command to do justice is as plain as the nose on my face.  And underneath it is the abiding great deep roiling sea of possibility.  Yes, you could.  You may not.  But you could.  Are you sure you want to live with the daunting, haunting reality, in faith, of possibility?  Much easier to live without it, Ecclesiastes not Isaiah, Calvin not Wesley, depravity not possibility.  Yet here you are, alive in the pew, listening on the radio, wondering again about faith.

In faith, you are alive to possibility.  A word of faith.

A Pastoral Voice

            For those here or listening, for those in the orbit of ministry of Marsh Chapel, these things are even a little bit harder.  For we are not, from this pulpit and in this faith community, interested in rigid orthodoxy on the one hand, even newer forms of righteously indignant and progressive orthodoxies, nor in secular humanism, or post religious humanism alone, on the other.  We baptize.  But here we hope that the baptized in holy water will one day be swimming in a cultural sea of clean water.  Why the cleansing of baptism, only to throw the faithful out into a sewer?  No, we are of the liberal perspective here, the now largely attenuated desire to place tradition and experience in dialectic, in dialogue, to affirm a faith amenable to culture and a culture amenable to faith.  Or at least the possibility thereof.   Faith sets you free, but not loose, here.  Here faith sets you free, but not loose.

As so many other Sundays over the last many years, we gather today in the shadow of violence, unnecessary and curbable violence, violence abetted by violent speech, cascading from national leadership for sure, but tragically finding a home and hearing, or least a guest room, in the heart of the heartland.   In the liberal tradition, it is not enough to announce faith, pray and move on.  Nor in the liberal tradition, is it enough to pronounce judgment, curse, and move on.  Though both are more than tempting.  No, our work, here, affirms a word of faith, yes, in pastoral voice, too, toward a common hope, afar.  A word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope.  Those who hope for no pastoral application of the Biblical perspective to our shared dilemmas will find little warmth here.  Those who hope for no religious reflection on the depths of our secular wanderings will find little warmth here.  There are other pulpits.

Ours is, then, by necessity a pastoral voice.  We are thinking of parents in Dayton Ohio trying to explain to their elementary age children why neighboring children and others are maimed, when assault weaponry or at least its ammunition could be outlawed.  Some pastor is this week visiting there, you could imagine, about this, with a mom and dad raising kids.  We are thinking of grandparents in El Paso, a city that is 84% Hispanic, worried sick about what may await their grandkids, given the deadly combinations of rhetorical hatreds and endlessly available weaponry.  Some pastor is this week out making one of the two dozen weekly visits necessary for competent pastoral ministry, and praying with grandads and moms, in El Paso.  Will it always be this way, it may be, that the parents in Dayton and grandparents in El Paso ask?  Easier to shake your head, pray and move on, with shrug, saying, ‘I guess so’.   Truer to tell the gospel.  No, these things need not be, and one day there may be a better day, but many in faith have grown old and died awaiting that horizon. Tragically, these tragic horrors are not inevitable, they are communal choices with horrific consequences.  We have chosen across the land to prefer it this way.  But faith, hear the harsh gospel, at least faith preached in a pastoral voice, does not allow for this.  In faith, you are, tragically, alive to possibility, including the possibility of something far better and far different.

Having enjoyed a pastoral conversation this week with her, I bring you greetings from El Paso, from Elizabeth Fomby Hall and her fine family, she who did so much a few years ago, to grow this Marsh community of faith as our director of hospitality.  She and three boys are safe.  The community there, as you did here in Boston, April 2013, is pulling together, giving blood, weeping with those who weep.  She says hello to you and all and all y’all.  And she and they are safe.  For now.

In faith, you are alive to possibility.   A pastoral voice.

A Common Hope

            This summer our national preacher series has conjoured a witness to faith in community.  It takes a common hope to undergird a common faith, a faith in community and through community.  Your stained glass window here on the west wall of this breezy nave pictures St. Francis.  Why do you single him out here, Marsh Chapel, to greet you every week, this Francis of peace?  Why?  It would be easier not to have his chafing voice of reminder so close to hand.  It would be easier not to have to see him, alive to possibility, alive to life, working to make and keep human life human, there he is, with the birds in the beauty of the stained glass.  He puts a demand, a hand, on me.  He bluntly scolds me that I am not free to walk past 30 dead bodies in El Paso and Dayton and California, and order a café latte, and with a shrug muse that nothing can be done, and that I am not involved.  No, that is the hard news of Luke 12.  In faith, you and I are ever alive to possibility.  God bless us.

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,

grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love;

for it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

            Toni Morrison took her last breath this week.  Maybe her writing did not move you, as it did so many of us, though it seems hard to imagine that.  She spent some lonely, cold dark winters early on Syracuse.  As one wrote this week, ‘she also comprehended that…being nice is not the same as being good’.   She wrote in part about ‘what it is like to be actually hated—hated for things we have no conrolt over’.  She also celebrated laughter and humor, ‘a way of taking the reins in your own hands’. (D Garner, NYT, 8/7/19).  She placed her characters, often, in small Midwestern towns.  Like Dayton. Or like El Paso.  She could be ruthless in her rendering of the truth.  But not hopeless.  For all the unspeakably unnecessary slaughter of the day, of her day, and now alas once more of our own,  her voice did ring out again and again.  Get up.  Start over. Tomorrow is another day.

In 1974, my summer boss, my first real boss, for whom I ran a waterfront with one profound rule, ‘no drowning allowed’, was tragically killed in a hunting accident.  I grew up with deer hunting all around, dad, uncle, neighbors.  He was running the deer above Owasco Lake and his close friend mistook him for one.  Koert Foster.  I was studying in Spain. My mother sent a hand written—she has excellent penmanship—aerogram, carefully composed.  “Bob, I am so awfully sorry to have to tell you this.  Your dear boss, Koert, died yesterday.  We know how much you loved him.”   Every evening Koert took us water skiing, a kindness meant to divert our attention from what he could not pay us.  And Koert gathered us every morning for breakfast.  Every summer breakfast, a huge meal and necessarily so by the way, began with his table grace prayer, offered as his Springer Spaniel rustled and dreamed under foot, under the table.  “Lord, we thank you for this another day.  We thank you for this another morning. We thank you for this another day.”  After Koert’s death, I realized that my then trajectory toward teaching Spanish Literature, and a graduate degree at Tulane, was not enough.  Unamuno, Ortega and Calderon de la Barca wwere a good response, perhaps, but not my best response to God.  Much as wanted to avoid the ministry, in some ways, his death compelled me, at age 20, impelled me, as a college senior, to think twice, to think again.  His death made me alive to possibility.  You never know.  It may be that someone, here, or someone, listening, will be nudged by tragedy into ministry, awakened by tragedy to a new dawn of service.  Nudged by Jesus, with Jesus, to bear the cross, the daily cross of possibility.

You never know.  May these deaths make us alive to possibility, too.  For this is another day.  And Lord we thank you for this another day.

In faith, you are alive to possibility.  Toward a common hope.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks…You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

Sunday
August 4

Faith in Community, Part II

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 28:16-20

Click here to hear the sermon only

Faith in Community

Last Sunday we explored one interpretation of the title phrase for our Summer Preaching Series, “Faith in Community.” We considered belief and trust in the idea of community itself.  That is, broadly, belief in the idea of the unity of a body of people that share something in common: interests, location, characteristics, beliefs, and/or culture.  This week, as was said, we’ll explore “Faith in Community” – the ways in which faith is lived out in community both by the individuals in it and by the community altogether.  

Our English word “faith” comes from the Latin through Old French, and carries the connotations of trust in someone or something,   The Greek word “faith” in the New Testament, the noun, also carries the connotation of trust, and the verb “to have faith” means also “to trust, have confidence in, to be assured of.”   Perhaps the most well-known Christian definition of “faith” comes from the early church in today’s lesson from the book of Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith for the author of Hebrews is not some wishful thinking or pie in the sky. “Assurance” and “conviction” are solid words – you can get ahold of them, they are words that ground people. The Hebrews can have the confidence, can be assured that, can trust that what they hope for in the life of faith will come to pass.  In fact, even if they cannot yet see these things, they can be convicted that their faith will be shown to be warranted. This is because they have already suffered and endured challenges and been brought through them – their faith has developed through their very real struggles and God’s own trustworthiness in their lives.  In spite of the challenges they have and will continue to face, they can live as individuals and as a community full of faith, they acna be faith-ful.

So how do individuals and communities live out their faith?  For one thing, they live their faith as inextricably intertwined:  there is no such thing as a solitary Christian.  Even appointed hermits or solitaries are connected not just to their communities but are engaged with the wider world as well, as was Thomas Merton with his writing and as is Anna Zilboorg with her knitting. 

The founder of my own faith tradition of Methodism, John Wesley, describes the process of growth in faith as “there is no holiness but social holiness.”  “Social holiness” is often interpreted by present-day Methodists to refer solely to the works of social justice. It does in part have that connotation in the sense that all social relations have that component to consider.  But the term “social holiness” as used by Wesley means holiness practiced in a social context of the individual active in an active community. Other people are necessary to our growth in faith as we are necessary to their growth.  We make our own personal practices of prayer, study, and worship large in our own lives – we regularly set aside time, put post-it reminders on the bathroom mirror, and so on. And we do this not just so that we ourselves can become more faithful, but because as we bring our learnings and experiences to the group, we encourage each other and help to increase each other’s growth in faith.  Likewise, when as the community we pray, study, and worship together, and experience together the grace and nourishment of the Sacraments, we enjoy each other’s company, recognize that God loves each one of us and all of us together, realize that we are not alone in our joys and our challenges, and we have the opportunity to experience a reality that is greater than the sum of us its parts.

Going further, each Christian community is part of the great community of the Church.  The Church is the body of Christ. We ask to be this body for the world at every Communion.  Jesus and the early church saw both individuals and their local faith communities as engaged in a much larger context.  While there are many mentions of how this Church might be lived into by individuals and communities, I would like to focus of three this morning, that are seen to be common ways, and even expectations, as to how individuals and communities are to live out their faith in the world.

The first is something that we talked about last week:  Jesus’ new commandment to his disciples that they love one another as he has loved them, so that by this love everyone with know that they are his disciples.  Jesus loved his disciples through his example, teaching, ministry, death, and resurrection. The kind of love that Jesus exemplifies empowers individuals, and the unity that the gathered body of Christ shares together in their shared interests and experiences.  And this kind of love is not just to help individuals and local communities grow in faith, but is also to empower change in the world in works of mercy and justice.

Jesus’ disciples are to become a world-wide movement.  He tells them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”  Now we have to be verycareful here. The history of Christianity is one of colonization, exploitation, religious and cultural destruction, and forced conversion, as well as of love. In light of this history, and in the context of Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he has loved us, a useful guideline to help interpret this passage comes from Prof. Daniel Jeyaraj, a theologian of world Christianity from India.  At a Costas Consultation on Global Christianity a number of years ago, he said that our job as Christians was not to convert others, but we are to welcome those who the Holy Spirit had invited to join us, and then we help them become mature disciples through baptism and teaching. In other words, disciples will come from all nations, and, not all nations nor all the people in them will become disciples. They will come as the Holy Spirit invites them, and as they see our love and our welcome.

Paul, writing to the church at Corinth – a city rather like Boston in its position in the Empire and diversity of population.  Paul puts all this in the context of a ministry of reconciliation. In love, God has reconciled Christians to God’s own self, and so to their own selves, and to their neighbors, in a new creation.  Individuals are no longer regarded from a human point of view but from God’s point of view. And the communities of which they are a part are no longer regarded from a human point of view, but as individuals and communities to be loved and reconciled as Christians and Christian communities were also loved and reconciled by God.  We live out our faith as individuals and communities as ambassadors for Christ to other people. We make God’s appeal to others through the love and hope we have experienced through our own reconciliation with God, self, and neighbor. Or, as D. T. Niles, the great evangelist from India described it, “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”

It is by our living out our faith as individuals and communities in love, in welcome and hospitality, and in reconciliation with God, self, and neighbor, that we have assurance that the things that we hope for will come about, that we have the conviction that the things that we cannot yet see will manifest.  Now sometimes this living out of faith is itself a challenge. Depending on the day, the pricks and frictions of living together even with those we love and respect can seem more than we can deal with. Sometimes our love, our welcome and hospitality, our ministry of reconciliation can seem weak and worn. This weekend is a case in point, when idolatry continues to ignore, or accept as a given, the increasing tragedies of mass gun violence such as occurred and is occurring in El Paso.  Sometimes greed and corruption seem overwhelming in the horrific consumption of other human beings and of the planet. Sometimes our pain and frustration tempt us to isolate ourselves, numb out, or choose other unwise ways to cope.  

The lives of Jesus and the early church acknowledge the challenges and trials of the life of faith.  And, paradoxically, they declare that it is in meeting and surviving the challenges and trials with faith that they are overcome.  Because as individuals in community, we do not meet and survive the challenges and trials alone.

In the life of faith, as individuals active in an active community, we grow in faith, and so grow in hope and confidence.   We live as though what we do actually matters, because it actually does. Faith changes us, and changes the communities of which we are a part, and changes the world.  Faith without works is dead, and the living out of our faith is the great work of all the Church. The great question of that work is, what matters to us enough that we love it, welcome it into our lives, do not regard it from a human point of view but from God’s point of view, want to bring the people or situations to reconciliation, want to see realized hope for it?  When we answer the question of what matters to us, individuals and communities, and begin to live out our faith as the Church with intention around the answer, then the world does change toward hope and new life. AMEN.

-Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell