September 22

Remembering Howard Thurman

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Luke 16:1-13

Click here to hear just the sermon


Before us today stands Jesus Christ, robed in mystery and announced in a strange parable.  There is no easy interpretation for this parable.  Why is its hero, my favorite accountant, commended for dishonesty which is a breach of the ninth commandment? We do not know.  Why is his master happy to be cheated?  We cannot say.  Why is an accountant’s swindle upheld, in this parable here attributed to Jesus, as a preparation, somehow, for heaven? No one can tell.  What, please, does verse 9, as tangled in the Greek as it is in your bulletin, intend (“Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations”? ) We do not see.  What possible connection is there between the story, and the four trailing proverbs?  Little at all, except that they all deal with money.  How did this story make it into Luke’s travel narrative?  It is not clear.  Is this dishonest manager our role model, in the church, as we try to “manage wealth in the direction of justice?” (Ringe)  Perhaps!  And, most of all, where is Jesus, The Divine Mystery Incarnate (Spirit and Presence Both) to be found in our reading today? The parable of the dishonest steward has really just one meaning, and it is very good news:  Faith gives spiritual health in the midst of change, including the transition into college life, in the voice of Presence Spirit, Spirit Presence.

Let us recall the mystery of Christ, the Stranger in our midst.  Spirit.  Presence. We can announce his spirited presence today, again today.  He is among us:  dealing with issues we dismiss…speaking with people whom we dislike…considering options we disdain…selecting vocations that do not yet fully exist…expanding spaces that we constrict…accepting lifestyles that we reject…attending to possibilities that we ignore…approaching horizons that we avoid…healing wounds that we disguise…questioning assumptions that we enjoy…protecting persons whom we mistreat…making allowances that we distrust.  So, strangely, is He among us.

For the mystery of Jesus Christ falls upon us, approaches us, and enchants us, when and where we least expect Him.  In the strange world of the Bible.  In the midst of the community of strangers that is the Church.  Hidden in the brutal estrangement of our personal life.  Here, behold, the Lord Christ Jesus, “L’Etranger”, “The Stranger”.

His spirited presence is neither simple, nor surface, nor easy, nor fundamental, nor shallow, nor ideological, nor one dimensional, nor ahistorical, nor primarily political.  He draws us, lures us, and enchants us.  So he sets us free.

For St. Luke in chapters 9 to 19 has captured a collage of portraits of Jesus, “On the Road”.  We are on a journey, as Luke reminds the church.  We are making a trip to the promised land.  We are headed in a certain direction.  With our spiritual forebears, we are traveling, on a journey.  Israel left Canaan to go to Egypt to find bread.  There they became the slaves of Pharaoh.  But Moses led them out, parted the Red Sea, and guided them through the wilderness.  He brought them the ten commandments.  At last, he sent them forth, with Joshua, to inhabit the land flowing with milk and honey.  In such a glorious land, they hunted and farmed.  They even built a temple, and chose a King.  Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon reigned, but were followed by others less wise and less strong.  Although the prophets did warn them, listen to Jeremiah today, the children of Israel left their covenant and their covenant God, and at last suffered the greatest of defeats, the destruction of Jerusalem and the return to slavery in Babylon, 587bc.  On these hundreds of years of history depends the cry of Jeremiah, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep, night and day, for the slain of my poor people.” (9:1). Like Israel marching in chains to Babylon, and then trudging home again two generations later, we people of faith are on a journey, from slavery to freedom.  Faith heals, manages, handles the hardest of change.

Luke’s mysterious Christ meets us today, hidden in the maelstrom of wild, unexpected change and economic crisis.  On the road, the journey of faith, the Gospel of Luke has most to say, and Jesus most regularly addresses, the issue of money.  Remember how Luke traces the Gospel.  Mary in the Magnificat honors the poor.  John the Baptist preaches justice, in the great, unique tradition of the Hebrew prophets, from Amos forward.  Isaiah’s words and hopes are affirmed.  Jesus blesses the poor, not just the poor in spirit, in his ‘sermon on the plain’.  Remember the parable of the ‘rich fool’, “tonight is your soul required of you, and these riches, whose shall they be?”  Luke sets Christian discipleship at odds with, in contest with, anxiety about possessions.  And, by the way, get ready in conclusion, to meet Lazarus and Dives.  Jesus Christ calls us to manage our possessions toward justice, both as a community and as a community of faith and as individuals.

Two Christological Perils


            Our son Ben said once of his grandfather, ‘I love to hear his voice’.   One year, his grandfather survived a nearly mortal illness.  There are not words to convey the joy, the gratitude, that we his family experienced in his escape.  Those who have been on the brink of death can appreciate the gospel promise, ‘I give them eternal life and they shall never perish and no one shall snatch them out of my hand’(John 10:28).  Not all such deliverance has an earthly horizon.  Some freedom and some grace must await us across the river.  And I don’t mean Harvard.  But some comes to us here.   He and my mother lived here in Boston 1950-1953.  In 1975, he wrote the following sentences in the back of a book.

            The temptation for the people of the church in every age is to believe: a) Jesus is only human; b) Jesus only appeared to be human.  For those who settle on ‘a’ there is no power, no mystery, no pull to pry them out of much of life.  For those who choose ‘b’ there is no hope because mankind cannot ascend the heights of divinity.  Both are heresies.  The pious wise men of 325ad  saw, though they could not explain it, that he was fully human and fully divine.


            My parents departed from Boston in 1953 just as Howard Thurman came to town.  Rev. Peter Gomes recalled, one year, as he and I exchanged pulpits, that George Buttrick and Howard Thurman used to do the same.  Thurman’s voice carries us into two dimensions, two realms of reality.  He was 100 years ahead of his time, 50 years ago, so he is still 50 years ahead of you (and me).  He evoked the Christ of Common Ground, transcendent, universal, shared, unconfined, free.  He evoked the Christ of the Disinherited, immanent, particular, grasped, embodied, back against the wall.  Two Christs.  Spirit and Presence.  Calling out to you to know the grain of your own wood, not to cut against the grain of your own wood…

                        We turn for support to Howard Thurman.  To his book, THE SEARCH FOR COMMON GROUND.  To his book, JESUS AND THE DISINHERITED.


  1. Thurman and Transcendence:  The Search for Common Ground (Hillary)


Spirit.  Hillary, what does Howard Thurman say about Spirit?

As Thurman wrote in the Search for Common Ground, “The Hopi Indian myth carries still, in its thematic emphasis on “the memory of a lost harmony””.  (CG, 40)

There is a unity of living structures…that includes rocks, plants, animals, and humans.  Antibodies and antigens.  And the arrangement of a cell in a human child (CG, 40).

Thurman cites Plato: ‘Until philosophers are kings…and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside…cities will never have rest from their evils’.  (CG, 53)


In the voice of Howard Thurman, 100 years ahead of his time 50 years ago, there is a regard for mystery, silence, presence, the transcendent.  One in kinship with all of creation. One in kinship with every human being, so that nothing human is foreign to us.  One in transformative engagement with our natural world, our home, our condition, our circumstance.  One in openness to the great differences and diversities of personal, that is to say religious, expression, including myth from long ago and far away.

The Spirit.

  1. Thurman and Immanence:  Jesus and the Disinherited (Mahalia)


Mahalia, what did Howard Thurman say about Presence?


‘Jesus rejected hatred.  It was not because he lacked the vitality or the strength.  It was not because he lacked the incentive.  Jesus rejected hatred because he saw that hatred meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, death to communion with his Father.  He affirmed life, and hatred was the great denial’ (JATD, 88)

‘There is something more to be said about the inner equipment growing out of the great affirmation of Jesus that a man is a child of God.  If a man’s ego has been stabilized, resulting in a sure grounding of his sense of personal worth and dignity, then he is in a position to appraise his own intrinsic powers, gifts, talents and abilities.  He no longer views his equipment through the darkened lenses of those who are largely responsible for his social position’ (JATD, 53).

The basic fact is that Christianity, as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker, appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed…In him was life, and the life was the light of all people…Wherever this spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.


The Presence, as well.


An Invitation


How will you live out the deep river truths, spirit and presence?  How will you live down its opposition, however you understand it?  Have you truly intuited the brevity of life?  Have you really absorbed the capacity we have as humans to harm others?  Have you faced the dualism of decision that is the marrow of every Sunday, every prayer, every sermon, every service?  Are you ready to make a break for it?  Are you ready to discover freedom in disappointment and grace in dislocation?  Are you set to place one hand in that of The Spirit and the other in that of the Presence?

As Director Katherine Kennedy once said, “The beauty of Thurman is that he wasn’t trying to convert people to Christianity. Rather, he wanted people to see that there is a common ground we can reach by respecting one another’s differences, while still holding onto those beliefs that are uniquely ours.”


Jan and I came over here to Boston fourteen years ago, in order to invest the last quarter of our ministry in the next generation of preachers, teachers, ministers of the gospel.  You hear today voices that will change the world for the better.  A few years ago, I asked in Thurman fashion a half dozen undergraduates to say something about Jesus.

Tom, what did they say?



is all the world to me…

loves me…

is perpetually ripe….

means freedom…

shows us that self giving love is the way to life…is my transforming friend…

has got my back…

is the consoler of the poor…the lamp of the poor …

is unconditional love…

is the constant companion on life’s journey…

My greatest gift…

Patient pursuer….

In love with us….

the Hound of Heaven…

Friend on the Journey….

challenges us because he loves us…

brings out our best self…


He is…

Known in the promise of this season


Reflected in the joys of autumn


Overheard in the words and vows of commitment


Expanded into the lengthening evening daylight


Enjoyed in the gatherings of families and friends


Celebrated in the ceremonies of completion


And carried forward from this hour of worship and day of remembrance 


In the words of Emily Dickinson:

I stepped from plank to plank
A slow and cautious way;
the stars above my head I felt,
About my feet the sea.

I knew not but the next
would be my final inch.
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call experience.

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

Leave a Reply