August 23

Liberal Church

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 16:13-20

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A healthy institution of any sort, particularly of any religious sort and certainly of any Christian sort, is a community that is learning together.  As Albert Camus said, the healthy society is a circle in which all are seated and each reminds the other: ‘You are not God.  I am not God.  You are not God. I am not God.’  You are the recipients, the inheritors of that liberal tradition, the legacy of the liberal church.  As such, we are learning together, every single day, every Lord’s Day, every one day.

We are learning together.

Moses teaches us.

We learn together from these glorious narratives, offered us week by week in this year, from Genesis—think of Joseph last week—and today from Exodus.  The uncanny, the unexpected, the spirited entrance into life, by and through human imagination and courage, of grace, of freedom, of love.  And Pharaoh’s daughter took a little prophet out of the bulrushes, Moses by name.  There come times when a new Pharaoh arrives, one ‘who did not know Joseph’.  There come times when the odds are set up against the real and true and good.  There come times when it is hard to name a fully good thing from any day or week.  There come times when both nature and history appear to conspire together, against grace.  And then along comes a recollection of the self-giving courage of a mother, setting her basket into the rippling waters of bulrushes along the Nile.  Loving by letting go.  There are some eyes with tears right around here this week, some parents turning away and giving children to the unforeseen future.  No matter the age or stage, it takes courage, it takes the uncanny, the unexpected, the spirited entrance into life, by and through human imagination and courage, of grace, of freedom, of love.  The community of faith knows change, knows itinerancy, knows loss that becomes gain and gain that becomes loss.  That is the legacy of the liberal church.

Moses teaches us.

Paul teaches us.

Here is a sweet memory to share, now more than twenty years old, but it is clear as a bright August morning, even so.  For how happy we were one Saturday in Rochester to hear an excellent sermon on today’s epistle, Romans 12 from our former pulpit, given at a divinity school graduation by the Rev. Mr. Peter Gomes, Harvard Chaplain.  Do you remember The Good Book, his 1996 essay on the interpretation of Scripture?  Really, his hymn of love for the Scripture.  We were really proud to have him in our Rochester pulpit, and to hear his message.

If memory serves, it included some standard homiletical devices—a foundational text (Romans 12:2), a theme (endings are beginnings), repetition, litanies, epigrams, some old and new humor, making use of natural “oppositions” that come to the mind of the hearer and then addressing them, a little poetry (TS Eliot—“Little Gidding”), a quotation or two, and an exhortation to the congregation to be transformed “by the renewing of the mind”.  Be ye not conformed but be ye transformed by the renewal of the mind.

What most appealed was the design of the message.  Following an extended introduction, and preceding a simple conclusion, the preacher offered three memorable points.  Hah!  In the living church, much national debate and new homiletical theory to the contrary notwithstanding, there is—and especially there was on that Saturday—still room for a good three-point sermon, even one that concluded with a poem.  From Aristotle to about 1970, this design had endured, and reports of its death in the last decades have been, in Twain’s term, “exaggerated”.   Three points and a poem still work.

Gomes challenged the graduates, the students, and by reflection the church and by extension all Christians, not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewal of the mind.  How?

          First, by noticing the difference between wisdom and knowledge.

          Second, by practicing meekness, whose opposite is not strength, but pride.

          Third, by protecting space and time for relaxation, prayer, reading.

Now, it would be nice to have the note page on which was summarized the message.  Somehow, though, between the past and present, the paper disappeared.   No matter—his design preserved the message for me—wisdom, meekness, relaxation.  Let us try to remember and, in Justice Holmes good phrase, try to give it the benefit of five great words: “I applied it to myself.”  Care to join me?  That is your legacy in the liberal church.

Paul teaches us.

Matthew teaches us.

We are disciples.  The word means student.  Disciple means student.  Salve Discipuli.  Salve Magistra.   Discipleship means studentship.  The model of faithfulness recommended, particular in Matthew, and especially in Matthew 16, is the model of the student.  Perhaps if we simply said ‘studentship’ rather than ‘discipleship’, we would do better.  Perhaps we should and could see the courageous arrival of the class of 2024 as exhibit a, exemplum docet.

Living right means learning together—in voice, in thought, in conflict, in Scripture.  Learning together.

It is this driving preachment that causes Matthew to eviscerate Mark here.   Matthew in 85ad has taken a passage from Mark in 70ad and turned it upside down.   It is not so much the detail, by the way, of the manner in which Matthew and Luke revise Mark, chapter by chapter, which is important.  What matters is that they happily re-gospelled the gospel for their own day, to a fair thee well.

No?  No?  Oh Yes. Yes, indeed.  Yes.

Mark in the passage calls Peter ‘Satan’.  Matthew calls him Rock.  Mark has no mention of any church of any kind.  Matthew uses the word, the greed word for church, ecclessia—not likely something Jesus would have said, and gives Peter keys to the kingdom.  Mark has Jesus tell the disciples—the students—to keep it all secret.  Matthew rejects that secrecy, except for the title, messiah, and says, ‘preach it’.  Why?  Why does Matthew eviscerate, confound, gut, overturn his legacy, this inherited passage from Mark?  Answer:  he and his community are learning together.  From voices.  From thoughts.  From conflicts.  And Matthew sternly tells his people:  to become fully human you will need institutional grounding, support, protection, and sustenance:  family, neighborhood, school, church, university, country, globe.  And let me be clear about the church, he adds:  the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.

Just more thing, as we are learning together in voice, thought, conflict and scripture.   Like Peter Falk used to say, in his character as Colombo, the absent-minded professor-like detective, turning as he left,  ‘Just one more thing…’

Who do you say He is?  In your life. Notice the passage crashes away from the general and the philosophical—what do others say (general) about the son of man (philosophical).  Some say (general), the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the Prophets (philosophical).  Notice the move to the specific and the personal.  Who do you say I am?  Meaning for you today:  how are you going to live?  A life of studentship, or not?  Said Peter, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  And you?    Remember this.  Peter is the one who most needed forgiveness, and full pardon he did receive.  There is forgiveness in life (repeat). And the church is the place where people like Peter, like you and me, who need forgiveness, find themselves forgiven.   That is your legacy in the liberal church,

Matthew teaches us.

Moses, Paul, Matthew—they teach us how to live in the liberality of the gospel, wherein we worship God who is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.  The passages become Holy Scripture, in that they make us more whole, more ourselves, more our own healthy, safe, well, best selves, holy because whole.   Scripture teaches us.  And, so does experience, sometimes both together.


Our long-time friend and virtual, radio congregant, Dr. Kris Kahle, in New Haven, Connecticut, often sends along something of interest, a passage from Camus, say, maybe from THE PLAGUE, or a paragraph from Barth’s Church Dogmatics, which he has been reading alongside his COVID 19 medical practice.  He and family are part of our extended family, an example of so many, far and near, who are with us in spirit, together in spirit, come Sunday. Perhaps you are one such. Grateful we are, thankful we are for Dr. Kahle and others, who share with us at Marsh Chapel, the freedom and love of the church, who share with us at Marsh Chapel, the fellowship, koinonia, commonwealth, partnership of the Gospel.  What began in the bulrushes of the Nile, and then was taught to the Romans by the Apostle to the Gentiles, and then, and now, today, in the Holy Gospel is acclaimed—this is the good news of ‘the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

Earlier in the summer Dr. Kahle took a moment apart from his medical teaching and practice to send me the video of John Lewis’s funeral, or rather, one of the eulogies therein.  We otherwise might have missed it, given the backwoods lack of technological connection—a summer blessing in the main—with which we live or don’t live, in the woods of upstate New York, come summer.  We trail technologically behind the Little House on the Prairie for some of the summer.  So, we would have missed it.  He sent it.  What a gift.

What made President Obama’s eulogy for Congressman Lewis so powerful?  It was a grand, high moment, a soaring eagle moment in American rhetoric.  Was it the reminder of what gracious eloquence can mean in leadership and life?  Yes, but not only that.  Was it the painful but real measure of civil society, of what ground we have lost, much ground, much real and rhetorical and religious ground we have lost in these past few years?  Yes, but not only that.  Was it the sense of the cost of progress, the willingness to work toward ‘a more perfect union’, recognizing, with sober honesty, the myriad imperfections that beset us?  Yes, but not only that.  Was it the generous sense of common hope, that which can sustain the least and the last and the lost, as well as the rest of us?  Yes, but not only that.  Was it the personal honor, in cadence and story and honesty and heart?  Yes, but no only that.  Was it the humanity—recalling Bill Clinton lifting his hand and pointing to the casket of Coretta Scott King in 2006, and stepping off his prepared text to shout, ‘for all these kind fancy words, don’t you forget, there’s a woman in that box.’  Yes, but not only that.  What was it, at depth, that made Barack Obama’s eulogy for John Lewis such a tremendous gift to me from Dr. Kahle?  Let’s cogitate a minute on that while the sermon meanders and unwinds toward its conclusion this summer morning.

What was it that made President Obama’s eulogy for John Lewis so trenchant and true?  Scripture, Holy Scripture, The Church’s Book, The Book on and of the Church.  In the main, along with other ingredients mentioned, the power in his personal ability, rightly to choose and use timely verses of Scripture, the Holy Scripture taught and learned in the learning community of the liberal church.  The setting—Ebenezer Baptist—spoke the same truth, in the languages of architecture, history, pulpit, choir and people.   Yes, the church is both a representation and a distortion of the divine (Tillich).  But if for some reason the church were to disappear overnight, in a cultural tsunami, it would come back.  Even the gates of hell will not prevail against it.  Somehow, we would find a table, and somehow a chair or two, and somehow some bread and wine, and somehow a Bible and an hour or so, and we would start again, as, in a way, we do every Sunday, which is especially and vividly apparent to us now in this pandemic.  We start over.  We would start with Holy Scripture.  It is this Holy Scripture in the Holy Church that rose up like a lion in the Obama eulogy for Lewis, the right verse in the right time in the right way.  James! ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.”  That is the courage of the Book of James. Corinthians!  (SECOND Corinthians, let us be clear), We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.   Acts!  “Do not be afraid, go on speaking; do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” (Acts 18).

It was the right handling of the word of truth that brought power and love, freedom and grace to life.  And it still does.  He concluded in eulogy, summarizing his three points, James, Corinthians and Acts:  And that’s where real courage comes from. Not from turning on each other, but by turning towards one another. Not by sowing hatred and division, but by spreading love and truth. Not by avoiding our responsibilities to create a better America and a better world, but by embracing those responsibilities with joy and perseverance and discovering that in our beloved community, we do not walk alone.


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