February 16

The Language of the Beloved Community

By Marsh Chapel

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Deuteronomy 30:15-20

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Matthew 5:21-26

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Hear today the good news of the language of the beloved community, Matthew 5: 21-26, in exegesis, explanation, and application.

First, Exegesis

Matthew is a teacher.  His own gospel is a didactic one.  He is teaching about the Person of Christ, and the Proclamation of Christ (as here in chapter 5) and then the Passion of Christ. Matthew is organized around at least five narratives and lectures.  Including a long lecture from a mountain.  Affirming the jot and tittle of the law.  Honoring disciples and discipline.  Matthew sees the world and its human inhabitants, as a school room filled with students.  He is a teacher, we are his students, and he wants us to learn.

In our passage today, Matthew’s verses ‘forbid not only the overt crime, but the disposition behind it’ (IB, op. cit.).  Killing is a result of anger.  Insult is a result of anger.  Denigration is a result of anger.  It is the soul, what is down deep, the heart, what is at the core and center of being, that is truly at stake, day by day, our Gospel teaches us.  Be careful.  Be careful.  Be very careful that you do not take the pose of what you oppose, that you do not conform to what you criticize, that you do not come to resemble what you resist.  It is almost inevitable, to some degree.  The person you resist, you come to resemble.  The organization you resist, you come to resemble.  The point of view you resist, you come to resemble.  When you wrestle with an angel you may take on an angelic blessing.  But when you grapple with a demon, you may become demonically mis-shapen.

Memorize the Beatitudes for they are the spiritual charter of the kingdom.  Remember that Matthew has two interests, the good news of Jesus and the church of Jesus, and neither is ever very far out of his field of vision.  These verses, Matthew 5 and following, carry to us, without much need for interpretation, ‘warnings against an overinvolvement in worldly goods.’  Teresa of Avila will also teach us so, and more so, come Lent.  After all, these crucial teachings are given directly to the disciples themselves, and only indirectly to others, near and far, early and late.

Now you are well aware, Marsh Chapel, you blessed and astute hermeneuts, that at least three options are available to you as you think about how to think about how to think about the teachings of Jesus recorded in Matthew’s—Matthew’s—Sermon on the Mount.   First, you may take these sentences straight, and expect that the Gospel expects us to live them out, fully, through and through. You Methodist perfectionist you! Second, you make take these sentences on the curve, and expect that they, being largely impossible to fulfill, are meant to remind us of our abject need for grace.  You Lutheran Protestant you!  Third, you may take these sentences as ‘interim ethic’, meant in full only for those who were expecting to see the end of time in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, and now superannuated by later Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience.  You Catholic historian you!  With some meager attention to the first two, as you know, I think the third is most true.  Already, a few verses after our passage, in the teaching on divorce, which in Mark and Luke is a pure prohibition—No–we have the opening of qualifications, even in the interim.  There are more reasons for divorce than unchastity, for sure.  Abuse, for starters.  Divorce is never a good thing but it is sometimes the best thing.  Or, as Krister Stendahl said of some such passages, ‘I believe it is the Word of God, but not the Word of God FOR ME’.

So, exegesis.

Second, Explanation

Some time ago, we hosted a June wedding, here in Marsh Chapel.  The bride, from San Antonio Texas, and the groom, from San Diego, had met here at Boston University, just months before graduation.  Each needed just a couple of extra credits to graduate in May.  So, independently, not yet ever having met, they scoured the course offerings, and, creatively, both settled on a course in ice skating.  Neither had every laced up skates, ice being harder to find in San Diego and San Antonio, than, say, Boston.  They appeared at the rink, found their skates, laced them, and hobbled onto the rink.  And there, quickly, they fell into each others arms.  Literally.

After the gracious, reverent wedding, one of her relatives, a stocky, barrel chested Texan, confronted the minister, asking:  What is he doing in here?  I mean him.  You know.  Our 16th President, Mr. Lincoln.  Why is he in here?  Well, this involved some ancient history of Daniel Marsh, and his choices of two windows to go along with the inherited others along the nave, one for Francis Willard, a prohibitionist—a gay, feminist, suffragette, protector of women and children—and the other for Lincoln, who freed the slaves and preserved the union.  Our Texas cousin, as it turned out, a really kind and gracious soul, was not dyspeptic to greet Honest Abe, here, just curious.

The separation of church and state has never meant anything like the separation of a Christian from her politics.  The opposite.  Francis Willard and Abraham Lincoln are with us every Sunday, listening to the choir, enduring the sermon, observing the congregation, right here, to remind us so.  That is, Willard and Lincoln bar the door, here, from those who would enter, or stay, on the supposition that one can practice faith apart from the gnawing claims of justice.  It is true:  justice is a part of the gospel, not the heart of the gospel.  The heart is love, agape.  But is also true that real religion is never very far from justice.  For those who might wish for one or the other—well, Lincoln and Willard might want a word with you. No. Religion, Christianity, Protestantism, Methodism, Marsh Chapel, all affirm a rooted synergy of deep personal faith and active social engagement.  Worship, its order and beauty and rhythm and depth and all, concluding with the majestic organ postlude, can and should nourish us, bathe us, and steady us—but can never protect us from our daily round:  we will head out again tomorrow to see what we can resurrect from the rubble of the republic Ben Franklin gave us, ‘if you can keep it’, said he.

Here in Matthew, it is not just action that gets you into trouble.  It is attitude as well.  It is anger, when expressed to a faithful sibling—that brings judgment.  It is insult, when poured onto a sister or brother—that brings arraignment.  It is derogatory rhetoric, when inflicted on one’s fellow—that brings hell fire.  You go from accuser to judge to guard to prison, accuser to judge to guard to prison.  The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s most creative contribution to our Holy Bible, will go on to attack adultery, and lust, and divorce, and perjury, and swearing—adultery, lust, divorce, perjury and swearing—this is not a Presidential Curriculum Vitae, it is just Matthew being Matthew—but before any of that comes, quietly, a gospel word about language, about the beloved community and its language, and about the roots of anger and insult and derogation.

Why?  Because, according to the Scriptures, we are meant to live in Beloved Community.  Because, according to the Wesleys, we are meant to live in Beloved Community.  Because, according to Thurman and King, we are meant to live in Beloved Community.  Because, according to what we most truly want today in our heart of hearts, we are meant to live in Beloved Community.  Because—you were in church last Sunday, right?—the Sermon on the Mount is written out as addressed to YOU PLURAL.  These are words for community, in community, to community, by community, addressed to an addressable community.  They are the language of the beloved community.  We should take an open space here at BU, and devote it to the beloved community, our heritage:  Yes, in our time; Yes, with Thurman and King; Yes, with the founding and leadership of BU;  Yes, with the preaching and singing Wesley brothers;  Yes, across the long expanse of history and religion; Yes, in the Holy Scripture, including Matthew, but most deeply within the Gospel of John.  Maybe we could put this in the room where the Howard Thurman Center once was?

Andrew Bacevich, in his newest book, The Age of Illusions, starts with compunction.  We suffer from too much hubris and too little hope.  Our hubris as a people.  And our lack as a people of a common hope.  Too much pride to little prospect.  As Benjamin Friedman wrote some years ago, in The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, times of plenty, like 2020 we might add, are meant not for hubris but for hope, they are times when the resources are around to take the world and make it young again.

So, explanation.

Third, Application

Now of a certain age, some of us can look back on three impeachment moments, in a lifetime.   All of them were accompanied by voices out of Matthew 5, sermon on the mount voices, voices trained in the language of the beloved community.

In 1974, some of us listened to a former Attorney General of the United States, who spoke, at Gray Chapel Ohio Wesleyan University, for more than an hour without notes.  Both his daughter and his son, fine people by the way, were students at that small college at the time, and were sitting proudly in the front row.  Richard Nixon was in the throes of impending impeachment. It was a bitter time. His former Attorney General, a loyal and staunch conservative, was speaking to us.  His theme is as crystalline today as it was almost fifty years ago:  This is a country of law and not of men. For 70 minutes, with real feeling and keen mind, he traced that theme into our memories.  This is a country of law, not of men.  After the Watergate burglary, he had been asked to pass over the regular rules of policing, to protect his president.  He did not.  An Arizona native, a Harvard law graduate, an Attorney General, a proud Republican, he would not forsake principle.  As a consequence, in part, his party’s President fell to the fear of impeachment.  This is Richard Kleindienst, who was later convicted, not regarding Watergate, but regarding an ITT business deal, but whose sentence and fine were annulled, accepting for himself his theme that evening:  a country of laws and not of individuals only.  Nixon retaliated by removing him on the same day as he did Ehrlichman and Haldeman.  There is a living tradition, on the right, in this country, a deep and true and thin tradition, of speaking justly against injustice.  We on the left should honor that in memory.  (By the way, about 5 years ago I was trying remember our graduation speaker two years later, Ohio Wesleyan 1976, about which moment I had exactly no memory:  seniors among us, be prepared for May.  Bring a notebook.  So I explored on the interweb and found out that our speaker was a lawyer whose name was–Robert Bork.  My, my.)

In 1998, some of us had called publicly for Mr. Clinton to resign from office, facing impeachment, on the basis of decency, and morality and honor.  He did not.  (Think by the way of what would have been different had he done so:  Gore running as an incumbent.  No 2000 defeat by 600 votes from dangling chads in Broward County.  No Vice President Cheney.  No vehement war mongering after 9/11.  No alchemistic concoction of imaginary weapons of mass destruction.  No George Bush.  No shadow for Hillary to run under.  But no.  It was a bitter time.  That Labor Day, if memory serves, a centrist Orthodox Jew, and US Senator, came home from a family weekend, and prepared a speech which he delivered the next day in the Senate, demanding accountability from his own party’s President. After much reflection, my feelings of disappointment and anger have not dissipated, except now these feelings have gone beyond my personal dismay to a larger, graver sense of loss for our country, a reckoning of the damage that the president’s conduct has done to the proud legacy of his presidency and, ultimately, an accounting of the impact of his actions on our democracy and its moral foundations. The implications for our country are so serious that I feel a responsibility to my constituents in Connecticut, as well as to my conscience, to voice my concerns forthrightly and publicly. And I can think of no more appropriate place to do that than on this great Senate floor.

It was a courageous, thankless, painful and much needed correction.  So many had passed by the long-term consequences of that earlier Presidential misuse of office, with, in retrospect, baleful reasons.  But Joe Lieberman spoke, and wrote, not in anger or in insult or in diatribe, but with earnest, sincere, care.  His righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees.

Now again in 2020, those within the party in power have been put before the long mirror of the Sermon on the Mount, to see how they would reflect, and be reflected in history.  It is a bitter time.  Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to perdition and many there be who go therein.  But narrow is the gate, and straight is the way, that leads to life, and few there be who find it.  That narrowness has everything to do with God, with Scripture, with Faith, with Conscience, and with Courage.  In real time.  What an Episcopalian did in 1974, and what an Orthodox Jew did in 1998, a Mormon did in 2020.  Maybe they all, out of their inherited religious traditions, drew on the memory of being outsiders, of being poor, of being powerless.  There is Kleindienst, I can see him sweating and speaking and his kids both proud and crying, 1974.  There is Lieberman, I can feel the terse intensity of his prose, virtually alone among his fellow Democrats, willing to call abuse, abuse, in 1998.  And now comes a former governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, standing alone in the well of the Senate, emotional, dog tired, red eyed, and firm.  Knowing there will be costs and consequences.  Saying things about conscience. Saying things about faith. Saying things about God. “Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented, and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience.” There is still a lot of good in this country, for all the losses of these years.  For those of us who are liberal, we owe it to ourselves, and to the honest truth, to record and recall that conservatives of character remain.  I have seen it with my own now dimming eyes.  I have heard it with my own now failing ears.  I have kept it in my own now flagging memory.  Kleindienst, Lieberman, Romney.  An Episcopalian.  An Orthodox Jew.  A Mormon. Hm.  Quite a trio.  Three who knew the grammar, syntax and spelling—the language–fit for the Beloved Community. Three who knew the grammar, syntax and spelling—the language–fit for the Beloved Community.

So, application.


A Beloved Community, devoted to healing climate change

A Beloved Community, devoted to nuclear peace

A Beloved Community, devoted to the language of grace

A Beloved Community, devoted to equality

A Beloved Community, where those with much have not too much, and those with little have not too little

A Beloved Community, devoted to learning, virtue and piety

A Beloved Community, honoring women, protecting children, embracing the elderly

A Beloved Community not of this world only, but of this world as a field of formation for another, not just creation but new creation, not just life but eternal life, not just health but salvation, not just heart but soul, not just earth, but heaven

To get there, we will need the voice and faith of James Weldon Johnson:  God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who hast blest us thus far along the way.  Thou who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path we pray.  Lest our feet stray from the places O God where we met thee.  Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world we forget thee.  Shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand. True to our God, true to our native land.

Sursum Corda!  Lift up your hearts!

Hear the Gospel of the Language of the Beloved Community!

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

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