September 6

Liberal Breeze

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 18: 15-20

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Keep a clean wind blowing through our hearts Gracious God

Keep a warm wind blowing through our hearts Gracious God

Keep a liberal wind blowing through our hearts Gracious God

Keep a summer wind blowing through our hearts Gracious God

Matthew 18: 15-20 involves communication, especially in the practice of forgiveness in community, with precise advisements, directions, and instructions.  Presence is important.  Listening is important.  Voice is important.  Collegiality is important.  Second tries are important.  There is no mention of technology, neither that of the first nor that of the twenty first centuries.  Forgiveness is personal, human, spirited, and real.  It requires human not sub-human communication.   And, as we shall see next week, forgiveness includes forgiving yourself.  We can note, to our possible discomfort, the Scriptural root and basis for the religious practice, following unsuccessful mediation, of shunning.  One antique but Scriptural answer is in the practice of shunning.  Another sermon for another day…

In verse 15, Matthew begins to give advice about how to live in community.   Community involves difference, but also can involve hurt.  Communication makes community.  Matthew’s Jesus teaches us to speak to each other in our presence and not of each other in our absence—to each other in our presence not of each other in our absence.

Some time ago I received a triangulating e-mail.  It came from the leader of an organization I dislike, seeking support for a person I do like.  I loathe one and love the other.  The triangulation in the communication forced me either to support an organization I do not like or to disappoint a person I do like.  What do you do in such a situation?  The kinder approach from the organization would have been a visit, or a phone call, in which sensibilities could be explored.  But now we have the e-document, email:  eternal, irretrievable, international, indelible.  And hence the tangled triangle.  It would take 3 hours or more to unbind and loosen this knot.  You know, there was a time when people had to come and see you before they so complicated your life.  I think on inquiry, that Matthew 18: 15 teaches me how to respond.  I should not send a steaming reply, tempting as that would be.  I should not reply from a distance at all.  I should go and see my interlocutor.  I should make a visit to the author of such an e-mail and find a way through the horns of the dilemma, the Scylla of support for an organization I dislike and the Caribdis of hurt to a person I do like.  A cartoon this week pictures a man saying to his friend, “I used to call people, then I got into e-mailing, then texting, and now I just ignore everyone”. Get things moving, get the community walking together!

 In verse 16, Matthew quotes from Deuteronomy 19.  That is, he goes back to the basics, back to the starting point, the Hebrew Scripture, the Old Testament, back to kindergarten, if you will, as many are going this week.  Read again Robert Fulghum’s, All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kingergarten. Get things moveing in the community—get people walking together!

In verse 17, Matthew provides a further suggestion, to use if the earlier ones fail.  Tell the whole church, his Jesus says.  We are clearly hearing overtones of what was needed in Matthew’s community, toward the end of the first century.  Jesus may well have taught in such fashion, though the use of a Greek word like ‘ecclesia’—twice here—probably indicates this is later material placed on Jesus’ lips.  But the import remains—gather the community for deliberation.  Get things moving in the community—get people walking together!

In verse 18, Matthew strongly affirms the lasting power of such church considerations, even saying, similar to our reading two weeks ago, in the phrase, ‘the keys to the kingdom of heaven’,  that what is bound on earth is bound in heaven, what is forgiven on earth is forgiven in heaven. Get things moving in the community—get people walking together!

In verse 19, two or three, when truly together, suffice to form a judgement.   Our English words ‘symphony’ and ‘pragmatic’ are rooted in the Greek here for agreement and matter. Get things moving in the community—get people walking together!

In verse 20, to conclude, the gospel further celebrates the precious joy of common life in the present, in the here and now, and it only takes a few, ‘wherever two or three ARE gathered in my name, there I AM as well.’ Get things moving in the community—get people walking together.  As our friend and colleague Dean Mary Elizabeth Moore wrote this week:

Breathe in the Spirit of Life
Breathe out your best selves
Breathe in the newness of the year
Breathe out your deepest hopes
Breathe in possibility
Breathe out acts of compassion and justice.

          Yes, a liberal breeze is blowing all about us.

The farm stand up the road from us summer by summer offers vegetables and fruit, as the summer season evolves.  Beans, peas, berries to begin, and corn, tomatoes, squash to follow.  They make their own maple syrup candies from the spring syrup.  It is a family operation, careful in cleanliness, in presentation, in pricing, and in conversation.  For all the pandemic changes, the pandemonium of policing troubles, the pugilism of the presidential contest—of about equal balance by the way in our county—our farm stand is an oasis of unchanging grace, natural abundance, civil discourse, and, especially, delicious foodstuffs.

A woman waited on me, with mask and distance and hand sanitizer, bringing out blueberries and two dozen ears of corn, half butter and sugar, half yellow, all melt in your mouth yummy good.  They now take a credit card, but when asked if they preferred cash said, ‘thank you for asking; no, now with this special (something, a metal clip or other) either one is fine’.  Carefully mowed lawn, decidedly smart packaging, good pricing though not cheap, signage at a quarter mile radius, NSEW, and happy eye contact welcome at the counter:  natural grace, at least 50 years in service, a still summer point in the soon to come autumn turning world.  And a liberal, summer breeze blowing across the lawn.

Yet. However. Nevertheless.  Sin embargo…

The stand is at the southeast corner of the intersection of routes 26 and 12B.  In June of 1966, as we were preparing to move from Hamilton all the long way north, all 16 miles north, to Oneida, an itineracy at the time grave and global to the 11 year old psyche, a woman was nearly killed at the crossing.  In a brand new car, dressed for celebration, she was driving south to her own high school reunion, had the green light and right of way, and was hit by a drunk driver, the car obliterated.  My father was still the minister in town, and I can remember the horror of the incident, and his visits to the little, then new, town hospital through her recovery.  Just a few years ago, by happenstance, I came to know her family and enoy their friendship. Natural grace, but a stone’s throw from high way carnage, in drunk driving.  And why the drunken driving? We could speculate abut the young man in the truck.  A life of milking early and late every single day perhaps, , 12 hour days, perhaps,  low income, limited possibilities perhaps, the forgotten folks left to tend the sheep while the shepherds went off to the city temple, perhaps? Lurking there, beyond my younger capacity really to see, was the vast historical conspiracy of these United States against the full humanity of poor white people, in the fields and harrows of cultural life.  White children make up the largest racial group of poor children in America (4.2 million): (“among America’s poor children, 4.2 million are white, 4 million are Latino, 3.6 million are African American, 400,000 are Asian, and 200,000 are American Indian”:  NCCP, 475 Riverside Drive, NYC, NY).   Natural grace, but a stone’s throw from class discrimination, in income, housing, education, health care, and respect.

On the northwest corner of the same intersection, nestled against the shoreline of Leland Pond, there was and still is a mile by half mile quadrangle of vegetable farming, owned by others.  In autumn each year there would arrive for about three weeks, a traveling company of African American pickers, whose children would come to our school for those weeks.  They started in northern Maine earlier in the year and just followed the advancing harvest south, leaving our little town for the next stop in Pennsylvania, and then following the Susquehanna river further down into Maryland.  I can see the families walking row by row, gathering the cabbage and other vegetables.  The film Cider House Rules decades later gave a bit of further insight.  Lurking there, beyond my younger capacity really to see, was the vast historical conspiracy of these United States against the full humanity of black folks, a conspiracy still deeply rooted in the fields and harrows of cultural life. Black children make up the highest percentage rate by race in poverty (33% of black children) (In the 10 most populated states, rates of child poverty among black children range from 29% in California and Florida to 47% in Ohio. NCCP, 475 Riverside Dr, NYC, NY)  Natural grace, but a stone’s throw from systemic racism, in employment, housing, education, health care, and policing.

How on earth did the rightful longings and lost dreams of poor white people on the southeast corner of that intersection get opposed to the rightful longings and lost dreams of the poor black people on the northwest corner of that intersection?  Excellent work, Wormwood, you devil you.  You make your Uncle Screwtape so proud.

 Take heart, dear souls, take heart:  A liberal breeze is blowing all about us.  There is a new day coming.

This cleansing summer wind blows away the spurious, silly, hate-filled attempts of national leaders to set at odds the urban and the rural, the manufacturing and the agricultural, the city and the country, the heart land and the coast.  What ridiculous falsehood.  Childhood piano lessons I took were given by a farm wife who then returned to the barn.   Sermons early on in ministry were endured by men who had been milking at 4am and were glad for a nap at 11:20am come Sunday.  Our best parishioners then and later knew the back-breaking labor of haying, and took on our teenage sons for such a week’s summer work.  One September evening we left a magnificent meal in the farm kitchen, to help with and see the birth of a calf in the barn next door, then to return for dessert.  In August one parishioner rode her horse to church in those years.  The idea, the flagrant false idea, that these saints are marks to be conned into belief by pseudo leaders who have not a whisker of belief themselves is absurd.  The idea that these good people are sitting ducks to be convinced to hate on the basis of race, to control on the basis of gender, to reject on the basis of ethnicity, nation, income, education or accent—the thematic thrust of some recent political discourse–is as appalling as are its spokespeople.  The dairy farmers we knew would have been inclined to take care of them, refine their education shall we say, perhaps out behind the barn, in no uncertain terms.  Of all my homiletical regrets and failings this one stands out in this season: as one who has lived half his life in great city streets and the other half in great country meadows, I have somehow failed to make clear our lived experience that, when it comes to good faithful people urban and rural, there is so little lasting difference.  It is a hoax.  It is a hoax!  And yet, somehow I and others who know better have not been able, yet, to make that case, and make it stick.   Rural people are not sexist rubes, racist dunces, greedy materialists, or fundamentalist flakes.  Urban people are not permissive snow-flakes, flighty nincompoops, unrealistic and clumsy airheads, any less interested in law and order and prosecution for wanton property destruction, or celebrants of Willie Horton.  You are being conned, America, you are being conned.  Take care to think through with care just who benefits from such false, adroitly engineered division.  Again: shades of Wormwood and his affectionate uncle.  The best good people, in the city and in the country, can know each other in spirit in a heart-beat.  They would know each other in a New York minute, and enjoy each other until the cows come home.  They would know each other in a New York minute, and enjoy each other until the cows come home. (I pause to break the fourth wall and to point out to budding preachers the structure and phrasing of the sentence, New York…cows…see?  Say what you say by the way you say it.)  Such saints would, can and will happily greet each other,on this side or on the farther home side of glory, with A METHODIST HANDSHAKE.  In heaven.   And for all of us, it’s later than we think, and Heaven-New Creation-Glory is closer than we ever fully project or expect.

Around us is blowing a gentle, summer wind, a lasting liberal breeze.  While creation groans, and while love suffers long and is kind, we shall need a little of the third person of the ancient trinity along the way.  A liberal breeze, a liberal breeze.

By the way, the asperity with which the Holy Scripture summarizes creation is only matched by the asperity which the creeds of the Church summarize creation.  ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. Period.  ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth’. Period.  Scripture and creed say what reason and experience know:  we have the brute fact of the brute creation.  Period.  The rest of the Holy Scripture, all 65.9 other books, and the rest of the creed, the long second paragraph and the shorter third, go on from there.  The love of God comes accompanied by faith and hope.  Creation is the occasion of love but does not occasion love, does not occasion faith in love, and does not occasion a hope for a loving future.  God is Love is profoundly about the second person of the Trinity, the Christ of God, not about the first person of the Trinity, and the creation of God.  Creation alone will never get us to heaven.  In pandemic, it will take the Second Person of the Trinity to get us free from the fallen creation of the First, guided hourly by the RUAH, the PNEUMA, the spirit, the wind, the liberal breeze of life.

In a moment we will hear again the ancient liturgy for eucharist.  We are not together to receive together the bread and cup.  But we are together in relationship, by memory, in hope, through prayer.  And with a little imagination, with eyes closed and hearts open, we might allow the familiar, ancient prayers of communion, to bring us into communion.

So, travel with a little imagination…Imagine Eucharist at Marsh Chapel.  Stand to sing… Pause to reflect… Step out into the aisle… Look at and look past Abraham Lincoln and Francis Willard…Receive cup and bread, bread and cup… Kneel at the altar to pray… Stand in communion with the communion of saints…Here is the bread and cup of friendship…Imagine, if you are willing, your own funeral, say right here, and a congregation reciting together a creed, a psalm, a hymn, a poem.  Imagine, if you are willing, a congregation currently in diaspora, but just now, by the word spoken, a gathered and thus addressable community, you and I and all together.

Keep a clean breeze blowing through our hearts Gracious God

Keep a warm breeze blowing through our hearts Gracious God

Keep a liberal breeze blowing through our hearts Gracious God

Keep a summer breeze blowing through our hearts Gracious God


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

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