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

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