December 29

What Did You Learn in 2019?

By Marsh Chapel

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Isaiah 63: 7-9

Hebrews 2:10-18

Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

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What did you learn in 2019?  It is a question fit for our Gospel read this year, that of Matthew.  Matthew is a teacher.  His Gospel is meant to teach, to edify.  The promise of God is fulfilled, he teaches, in Christ.  He asks us to learn and teach the same.  He guides us then to grow and learn, day by day, in Christ. 

Now we come to the turn of the year.  Our calendar is still rooted in Christmas, in the birth of Christ.  So, today’s date, December 29, 2019.  2019 years since…the birth of Christ.  Some day that way of keeping the global calendar could change, and of course there are other calendars abroad even now.  But for now, the birth of Christ marks still the turn of the ages. 

Our secular calendar carries this week a different turn, from the old year to the new.  It is often a time for reflection and rumination on what has been, in light of what may be.  In homiletical meditation, briefly, this morning, perhaps we could reflect and ruminate together on just what we have learned in 2019.

In a way, coming together in worship, Sunday by Sunday, is regularly a moment for such reflection and rumination.  As the year ends, perhaps we owe ourselves a fuller and finer rumination in ordered worship.

Those who grace our presence in worship, each week, and those who listen in prayer from afar each week, make up a generous and disciplined community.   In worship you began this year, last Epiphany, including a recognition of Martin Luther King Jr., one Sunday, and a Bach Cantata another (these Cantata Sundays, twice a term, have become distinctive, deepening moments for us, through the year).  In worship you entered the season of Lent, listening for the Gospel in reflection on the voice of Saint John of the Cross (our thirteenth Lenten theological conversation partner, 10 Calvinists and 3 Catholics, with the next 7 also to come from the Roman tradition, including this spring St. Theresa of Avila).  In worship you fully devoted yourselves to the special services of Palm Sunday and Holy Week, including 4 Easter services.  In worship you recognized the spring ceremonial University moments, as you did again in the fall.   In worship you received the thirteenth annual National Summer Preacher Series, on the theme of ‘Faith in Community’, as you will again this summer 2020 on the theme ‘Matthew and Methodism’.  In worship, come autumn, you listened for the Gospel in Luke, on the trail health.  In worship, this very month, you offered to God and neighbor 10 different services of worship, December 1 to December 29, as you balanced your earlier Lenten affirmation of the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection with a now equally full communal immersion in the story of Jesus’ birth and life.  Both accounts, the death story and the life story, and their full balance together, are crucial to our walk of faith, each one needing the other, and we needing their intertwined acclamation.  In worship, you came for the Eucharist on the first Sunday of each month, this rare and beautiful congregation whose body increases in girth on communion Sundays.  In worship by various other special moments, you offered your prayers, presence, gifts and service to God and neighbor.  Particularly we thank those who helped lead on Tuesday this week for two Christmas Eve services, while the University itself was closed, and our staff and chaplains on well-deserved holiday.   And Sunday by Sunday, and season by season, in quiet, song, word, and sacrament, you have had a moment to reflect on what you have learned, in the week before, as we do this morning on the year as a whole.   So, what have you learned, in faith, this year?

We do learn from our experience.  Earlier this month we remembered here William Sloane Coffin, who taught us in and from experience.  His and other University Pulpit voices from the just preceding generation—Coffin at Yale, Peter Gomes at Harvard, Howard Thurman here at Marsh, James Leslie at Ohio Wesleyan, Robert Smith at Colgate, John McComb at Syracuse, and several others, ought to be remembered, even as the number or University pulpits has radically dwindled, for they taught us in and from experience.  Later this next month, on Martin Luther King Sunday, we will revisit the influence of Howard Thurman.  One other University pulpit voice has come strongly to mind, for whatever reason, this season.  His name was Ernest Gordon, Dean Ernest Gordon of Princeton University.

Our children lived for a time in New Jersey.  One day with them we visited Princeton.  In Princeton we passed the Princeton Chapel, for many years Dean Gordon’s chapel.  Some years ago, his obituary reported simply a man given to the service of naming Christ Jesus, who saves.  You can see a part of his life story in the old movie, “Bridge over the River Kwai”.  A Scottish pilot, Gordon was captured in 1942 and forced into slave labor in Burma.  He and others lived on a lump of rice a day.  Slackers were beaten.  The sick were shot.   Those who tried escape were executed.  “We were treated worse than animals”, he remembered.

Yet in that wartime bamboo hell, Gordon found salvation.  “Faith thrives when there is no hope but God”, he later repeated in his weekly sermons.  He survived, thanks to his comrades.  He survived his survival, thanks to his Lord.  He realized that “if he let himself be consumed by hatred, he would be squandering the life that had been given back to him.”   So, he returned from combat, went to Seminary, immigrated to the USA, was ordained, preached on Long Island, went as chaplain to Princeton, opposed McCarthy, supported King, opposed Vietnam, supported Russian dissidents.  In other words, he carefully read the Scripture, and tried to tell its truth about life and faith.  Here is his proverb: “Faith thrives where there is no hope but God”.   He taught what he had learned in experience. And once a year, in the spring, he preached a sermon about his experience in the 1940’s, about which he also wrote in a famous book.  While Chapel attendance was generally good in those years, it overflowed it is said each year on that Sunday.  He has been on the back of the mind this week, coming toward a New Year.

Now in the Bible, it is centrally the Book of Proverbs in which we find reflection on experience and faith.  But in a way, we all end up collecting and curating our own book of proverbs.  As my friend said, ‘you have to learn from other peoples’ mistakes, because we don’t have time to make enough mistakes on our own alone to learn what we need to learn—and we do learn most from mistakes, ours or others’.   Share with me sometime a proverb you have gleaned this past year, out of hard experience, like Dean Ernest Gordon did from his.  Send me a note, reading just, ‘I have learned this year that…’. Or whisper to me at the door, some Sunday, ‘I have learned this year that…’

This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.  Many people think this well-known proverb is from Proverbs, this well-known wisdom saying is from the Bible, it is so familiar and so tidy and so, well, wise.  It is not.  It is from the great Bard, William Shakespeare, in the words of Polonius, nearly 500 years ago.

In these 500 years past, the notion of the self, the independent person, the soul set free, has come over time out of the reformation, the renaissance, the spirit of capitalism, the emergence of democracy, and the very project at heart and depth of modernity.   We today as late or post moderns have acquired something of a distrust for such direct discourse about the self.  Darwin, Freud, Marx, and others, the probing doctors of disenchantment, have properly cautioned us, have rightly chastened us to realize our fragmented fragility, our life limitation, our complication by and in society and culture, sub-conscious and family.  We are always in part where we come from, in no small measure, we do see today, whether that origin is the mud deep of evolution, or the mind deep of dreams, or the class conflicts of history.  Determined to be our own most selves, we are nonetheless and largely ourselves as determined by forces well beyond our poor power to add or detract.   So, for all of Shakespeare’s concision and beauty of rhetoric and all, we nonetheless have our doubts.

Yet, for part of 2019 I kept a little journal, a little folder wherein to store proverbial or experiential learning.  No claim for spirited inspiration in any of these is here made. I have no word of the Lord on this, as Paul would say.  They are offered, by modest illustration, as of interest, and more so, as encouragement to you to pen, and share, your own, in the year to come.  What will you have you learned this coming year?

I have learned some things in our neighborhood.

That Fenway Park combines nature, structure, culture, and future, and has an applicable broad health in its design.   They did not destroy it to rebuild it.  They prized its nature.  They enhanced its structure.  They honored its culture.  And so, they opened its future.  Those of us who go regularly are the beneficiaries.   Of course, it occurs to think, renewal in churches, both physical and spiritual, might also benefit from that combination:  nature, structure, culture, future.

Speaking of which, also, that Bill Buckner was right, as he said: “Everyone in life has things that don’t go according to plan.”

That there is probably some religious connection we might make, right here, with the thousands of champagne bottles and robes and poses and photographs on Marsh Plaza each May at Commencement.  What are these students doing out here, anyway? It is fascinating.  Maybe we should give them each a Bible?

That my Jewish colleagues, here at Hillel House, are so right to emphasize the irreplaceable value of Shem Tov. A good name.

I have learned some things about communication.

That in email communication, a desire for Clarity can be read or mis-understood as a tone of Insistence

That the Japanese language, of which I am a fledgling and stumbling learner, carries a combination of delicacy and ferocity—Mishima.

That there is power in simple, memorable slogans, like HER: health, education, retirement.

That ‘as online life expands, neighborhood life and social trust decline’ (D Brooks NYT 3/12), that increasingly our current society is designed for internet vitality.

That in planning this triad helps: first Structure, then Order, then Communications.

That some sermons move from small and narrow in congregation and faith to large and broad in experience and outlook, and that is fine, since the world is our parish and we seek a heart strangely warmed.

That come Sunday we listen for a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope.

I have learned some things in self-care.

That Doctors default to easy choices later in the day, in decision fatigue, so they learn to guard against this.  (And why is it we still hold our church meetings at night? SMH. SMH. Shaking my head.

That to keep faith through change, we will need non anxious presence, and self-differentiation: thank you E Friedman.

From my worrisome dreams that humans are born to worry, but that Twain was right, ‘I have had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened’.

That as a preacher to try to read or listen to more sermons, one a day if you can, as my friend Chapin Garner advises.

That there is importance in not letting things sit, of finding quickly the startup energy to address things fast so that they don’t add valueless weight and stress.

That my dear friend, of blessed memory, Wylie Robson, Kodak Senior Vice President, was right:  ‘The secret to aging well is to learn to manage anxiety’.

That my mother was right to avoid ‘borrowing trouble’.  ‘I don’t need to borrow trouble’, she would say with wisdom.

I have learned some things about our country.

That Lincoln fought not just the moral evil, but, ‘the moral, social and political evil of slavery’. NYR 5/19

That social grace, as my son in law said, includes this: The power of diversity is not about correctness but correction. Being open to all means being open to change. (S Cady.)

That in 2000 1.6M migrants were apprehended at the southern border, but in 2016 only 190,000.

That before their simultaneous death, July 4, 1825, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson shared 158 letters.

I have learned some practical things.

That when you are lost, traveling, it helps to ask for help, and it really makes a difference when people lend a hand, and guide you by the hand, lend a hand by guiding you ‘by the hand’.

That it is important to seek convergent aspirations, both personal and institutional, with those close to us, and those with whom we work.

That sometimes hope is the negation of negation. Hope is present by being absent.  Hope names what is absent. Where would we be without the help of things that do not yet exist? Future thought is the negation of negation. We need to take ownership, to paraphrase Marx, of ‘the means of prediction’.

 That we don’t all have to think in the same way to face in the same direction.

What have you learned in the neighborhood, about communication, regarding self-care, of our country, or in practice?

Share with me sometime a proverb you have gleaned this past year, out of hard experience.  Send me a note, reading just, ‘I have learned this year that…’. Or whisper to me at the door, ‘I have learned this year that…’.  And, a Blessed Merry Christmas, and a very Happy New Year, to you, 2020.

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

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