May 3

The Shepherd

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

1 Peter 2:19-25

John 10:1-10

Acts 2:42-43

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        To begin, our colleague the Rev. Dr. Karen Coleman I have asked to give us a few verses from Robert Frost:

What now is inland shall be ocean isle,
Then eddies playing round a sunken reef
Like the curl at the corner of a smile;
And I could share Time’s lack of joy or grief
At such a planetary change of style.

I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.

        Last Sunday, April 26, given the new and different schedule of Sunday during the pandemic, I happened to tune in to a television show, one new to me.  Before of course tuning in to WBUR for virtual worship of course.  Well, all Sunday morning TV is pretty much new to me, at least any such from the last forty some years or so.  I peddled along on my little stationary bike, sipped a coffee, and listened.  A familiar person—it took me a while to settle up on the memory of her name, not Katie Couric, not Meredith Vieira —with grace and a happy smile gave an overview of what the program would include.  Her name—ah yes, Jane Pauley.  She proposed to tell us about Julie Andrews.  

        Now most people of a certain age, and in fact many of any age, can begin singing, just at the introduction of her name.  Doe, a deer… Edelweiss…Chim chiminee…My favorite things…It was all very satisfactory, along with lazy exercise and coffee, and a kind of mental freedom somewhat or entirely new to me, Come Sunday.  In fact, it made you wonder how people leave this sort of thing behind and get going out the door to church at all.  Julie Andrews, she, of unmatchable voice, a four- octave voice as the music teacher in our home recalled, she lost her voice a few years ago in a medical operation. Did you know that?  She lost her voice.  Such a voice to lose.  Something pierced the heart, in a corona swept country, to be reminded amid our own immediate loss, of such a loss.  

        Now something happened.  In a whirl, a great whoosh, there appeared a combination of modes and media in the televised telling of this tale.  You had the guide speaking, the afore-remembered Ms. Pauley.  You had the grace and voice of the British star, Julie Andrews.  You had clips of scenes and songs from long ago, spliced and splashed into the moment.  You had soon enough the appearance of Ms. Andrews talented daughter, an author of children’s books.  You had footage of Ms. Andrews as a child in London during World War II.  Hm…You then had mother and daughter, across the miles from Long Island to Southern California, or as we like to call that area from our snow perch here in Boston, ‘heaven’.  They agreed that Ms. Andrews had found another sort of voice, in the work with her daughter on children’s books.

        It was the mixture of media, to which we are a bit more attuned here, now on Sunday, now last Sunday and now this Sunday that mesmerized, for a moment at least.  Splicing.  The old.  The new.  The Voice.  The music. An empty home, really, a kind of empty church.  All you needed was a sermon.  And it came.  The guide, the afore remembered Ms. Pauley asked the daughter, ‘what did your mother teach you that stands out in memory?’  Now that is a daunting question to answer in front of God and the whole televisioned world.  But she did neither falter nor quail at all.  ‘My mother taught me, ‘When in doubt, stand still.  When in doubt, stop, stand still’.

        Now that is in some fashion what happens for us on Sunday morning.  We come to church, or in this remarkable season, virtual worship, dressed in our doubts.  And we are asked, for just an hour, just one hour, to stand still.  To bring our doubts to the full emptiness of a silent church.  To bring our doubts to the fullness, the fullness of an empty church. 

        Ah, an empty church.  An empty church has a strange potent power to touch our hearts.  One church organist confessed that after practicing for a while, alone in the nave, he would sit, still, and “let the power of the place fill me”.  A woman told of entering an empty church after, by phone, she learned that her father had suffered a stroke: “the power of the place filled me”.  One young husband went late into a large old church when his wife went under the surgeon’s knife: “I let the power of that place help me”, he said of the empty nave.  Even a boy and girl in youth group once groped into a dark sanctuary to talk and touch and taste tender love: “the place, empty, was full”.  A Bishop, adrift in a sea of paper, prayed in a fully empty big sanctuary:  “it was powerful to be there”.  An empty church has a strange potent power to touch our hearts. Emerson:  I love the silent church, before any speaking.

        Augustine in Hippo there awaited the vandals.  St Aquinas there realized what he had written—a life work—was “so much straw”.  Thomas More there prayed before death.  Luther, Calvin and Wesley there awaited Christ.  Oscar Romero there died, in the prayer of humble access.  Though he had no elements, alone each morning Terry Waite in prison for four years had communion—by imagination—in all the great British Cathedrals:  Monday in Salisbury, Tuesday in Durham, Wednesday at Coventry….

        With you, I try to read the news and listen to the events of the day.  As you do, I try to overhear behind the immediate din of sounds and bites, something of the heart of people and of our people.  This spring, sometimes, I overhear a pained and painful sense of doubt about the possibilities in life.  A doubt that things can change very much.  A doubt that anything new could ever emerge.  A doubt that people can repent and turn around.  A doubt that systems, so entrenched and contentious, can ever be made orderly.  A doubt that any of the older differences among us can ever be bridged.  A doubt that any common expression of faith can be trusted.  A doubt that any common faith or common ground or common hope can ever, with authenticity, emerge and survive.  A doubt in which the radical postmodern apotheosis of difference has silenced the liberal late modern openness to shared experience, to promise and future, to common faith, common ground, common hope. A doubt that minimizing one’s own visibility or audibility, for the sake of something bigger and someone else, could ever be faithful or reasonable.  A doubt that the general public could be trusted to shoulder significant sacrifice.  A doubt that anything I do or you do would ever make a difference.  A doubt that this virus will ever let us go…A viral doubt.

        When this cloud of doubt gets so thick that it eclipses both the sun and the moon, it is time to hear again the gospel.  When in doubt, stand still. 

        John 10 today shows us the fullness of emptiness, presence in absence. John has always more than one opponent or contestant. He is fighting always on two fronts. So much for tradition, so much for culture. So much for depth, so much for breadth. So much for Hebrew, so much for Greek. So much for church and so much for community. So much for memory, so much for experience. John contrasts the freedom of Christ with fragile, formulaic faith. Things do not always fit into little boxes. The Hurricane winds of change, the reaches of pandemic, say, rearrange every manner of dwelling.

        The Gospel of John, more than any other ancient Christian writing, and in odd contrast to its prevalent misunderstanding abroad today, knew the necessity of nimble engagement of current experience, and the saving capacity to change, in the face of new circumstances.   The community of this Gospel could do so because they had experienced the Shepherd, present, ‘here’, here and now.  In distress, we hold onto divine presence, we hold onto the Shepherd– hic et nunc. Speaking, and hearing.  They found that in speaking of the Shepherd: ‘he is here’.  ‘I am…’  That is all, still, we have, the voice.  Utterance.  ‘I am…’  The ‘here’ is in the hearing.  Can you hear that?  It begs to be heard, here.  I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

        Others over time have heard the same.  At this time of year, I often think of Churchill and Wesley.

        These two Englishmen have something for us, in any spring time, and perhaps most especially this corona spring time.  Think of England in May 1940.  Think of London in May 1738.

        At the right moment, in May of 1940, Winston Churchill faced down the more polished, better heeled, more popular and more experienced old Britons of his newly formed war cabinet, and steadily led his country away from their desire to compromise with Adolf Hitler.  With Belgium defeated, Churchill clung to a love of freedom.  With France cut in two, Churchill clung to a love of freedom.  With 400,000 men stranded at Dunkirk and escape virtually impossible, Churchill clung to a love of freedom.  With the whole German air force poised to incinerate England’s green and pleasant land, Churchill clung to a love of freedom.  With Lord Halifax ready to seek terms, and Lord Chamberlain ready to let him, Churchill clung to a love of freedom.   Re-read this summer John Lukacs’ Five Days in London, May 1940.   He concludes: “Churchill and Britain could not have won the Second World War.  In the end, America and Russian did.  But in May 1940 Churchill (alone) was the one who did not lose it.”  Easter faith is about love of freedom. In his presence we find the courage for our own assent.

         In the same London, at midlife, one enchanting night in May of 1738, John Wesley heard something said in church that warmed his heart for good.   He had been on Aldersgate street that Sunday evening, going to chapel service more from duty than from passion, when he heard a preacher read Romans 8 and also Martin Luther’s commentary on that passage.  There is something so fragrant and so full about damp London in the springtime.  As he left church, Wesley felt something new, a freeing love in the heart, which is the creation and work of the Holy Spirit, which blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it.   Easter faith is about freeing love.  In his presence we find the courage for our own assent.

        There are for sure a lot of things wrong.  But there are also, and more surely still, a lot of things right.  Hear the good news.  You are witnesses of the goodness of God, witnesses who come from a long line of people who joyfully bless, and routinely give great thanks.  “Faith is an event expressing the conviction that the things not yet seen are more real than those that can be seen” (L Keck).  As you, as I, as we together walk toward our last adventure, our mortality, our own look over Jordan, it is this freeing love, which carries us.

        John 10 is an altar call for you.  Come Sunday, I propose that you come to an imagined communion, as did Terry Waite, ready to accept the gift of faith, to give assent in the hour of the divine presence, of the Sheperd:  I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

        So come, to experience freeing love.  So come, to receive a love of freedom.  So come, to give thanks for the freedom to love.   Such is the gift of the Gospel, upon this Lord’s day.  So come, on a feast day of the Lord’s ready and willing, joyful and happy to assent to a new life of faith, hope and love.

        Wherever two or three are gathered, there I am with you.

        There is a fullness to an empty church, right here and just now.  I don’t see you.  I don’t hear you.  I don’t touch or taste or sense you present.  But I know you are out there, listening and praying and worshipping.  But I can’t see you.  That is something like faith, faith in God, in love, in meaning.  I don’t see it or hear it or measure it our touch it or scent it.  But I know it’s there.  So, alongside you, touched by the fullness of an empty church, I may just be able to go forward, as of old the apostles did too.

        To conclude, our colleague the Rev. Dr. Karen Coleman I have asked to give us our lectionary verses from Acts 2:

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

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

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