August 1

Gift of the Lake

By Marsh Chapel

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John 6:24-35

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As this summer we reflect on what we have been through, over the last year and more, and as we meditate together upon the mighty themes of the Gospel, we might recall earlier intimations, earlier voices, which paved our way, cut our trail, made a space and place in grace for our own hopes.

In New England now over many years we have been given a gift from the sea.  The warm welcome and friendly spirit of your presence and care has been a guiding spirit for us, here along the Atlantic coast.  In fact, you have lived out much of what Anne Murrow Lindberg described in her little book about the ocean and the soul, Gift from the Sea.  She recommends, strongly, time spent on the shore.  She wrote some years ago: “The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.”

In thanks for these years of sea gifts, we bring you this morning a Gift from the Lake.  A fresh water gift to honor a salt water gift.  We spend our summers largely among grandchildren and their parents, alongside a fresh water lake, of which there are many in our land of upbringing, along the Erie Canal.  This lake region bears the distinction of having given rise to many women and men who heard and heeded John 6, who did not leave freedom, the self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe, to somebody else.  Its price of eternal vigilance they provided in very daily, very personal, very local, very immediate ways.  Today, as a Gift from the Lake, we bring some of these fresh water memories.  They may recall for us that, while there are always at of things wrong, there are also always a lot of things right.  Yeats feared that the center could not hold:  the falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the center cannot hold. And yet, over time voices of spirit and life have emerged to hold, to hold us, together.  To hold us together as a country, as a culture, as a community.  In a time when, for some, mendacity and violence seem to have become tools in the political workbench, we can recall and broadly affirm that in and with a measure of faith, the center can hold, the center can hold, in country and culture and community.  Hear then of a Gift from the Lake.

This is the lakeside land of Hiawatha (“who causes rivers to run”).  Such musical names adorn this lakescape:  Canandaigua, Tioghnioga, Onondaga, Tuscarora, Cuyahoga.  The great native leader of the Iroquois showed in the 15th century the critical need for union, for space and time in which to live together.  His leadership was focused on common space, on collegial relations, on counsel together, and so he is harbinger of all the examples of faith and freedom to come up along the Mohawk and the Erie Canal.

All your strength is in your union

All your weakness in discord

Therefore be at peace henceforward

And as brothers live together

This is the land of Harriet Tubman.  You may want to visit her home in Auburn, NY.  Her neighbor William Seward, also from Auburn, bought Alaska, considered at the time a folly, an “ice-box”.  Our 21st century theological issue is space.  Tubman’s grand niece, Janet Lauerson, was on my church staff for a time in Syracuse on Euclid Avenue, after we both migrated down from the far north country, not far from the burial place of John Brown.  His body lies moldering under a ski lift near Lake Placid.  He and Gerrit Smith, founder of Peterboro, a community established for free slaves, a short 10 miles from our summer home, were not ‘compatibalists’ regarding slavery.  As Lincoln would later say, he felt those who most affirmed slavery should start by trying it for themselves.  Brown, Smith, Seward and others were the chorus before which Tubman could sing out the life of freedom, following the underground railroad.  Remember her wisdom:  “When I found I had crossed that line (on her first escape from slavery, 1845), I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person.  There was such a glory over everything…I started with this idea in my head, ‘There’s two things I’ve got a right to…death or liberty’…’Twant me, ‘twas the Lord.  I always told him, “I trust you.  I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me, and he always did.”

You will expect to hear something of Frederick Douglass, buried in Rochester.  His burial plot is across the street Strong Hospital.  As one patient said, looking through the window, “it gives you something to think about”.  Douglass printed the “North Star” in Rochester, and through it developed a voice for a new people in a new era.  In the North Star, Douglass wrote: “ The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle…If there is no struggle, there is no progress.  Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening.  They want the ocean without the awful roar of its mighty waters.” Or maybe we should give the honor to his colleague Sojourner Truth, calling in the same reagon for voting rights a long while ago: “That…man…says women can’t have as many rights as man, cause Christ wasn’t a woman.  Where did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman.  Man had nothing to do with him!”

Susan B. Anthony did not leave the project of freedom to others.  I wonder what sort of dinner companion she might have been.  Her constant consort with governors and senators across the Empire state made her an early Eleanor Roosevelt.  My grandmother grew up in Cooperstown and graduated from Smith College four years before she had the right to vote.  My mother was born in Syracuse only a few years after full suffrage, and taught Latin.  My wife is a musician and teacher, my sister is a corporate attorney, many of my colleagues in ministry are female.  I scratch my head to imagine a world without their voices.  In the Episcopal tradition, Syracuse produced Betty Bone Schiess, one of the first women ordained to ministry in the Protestant Episcopal church.  One of the Philadelphia 11.  We study her now in Introduction to Religion.  One rainy day when my daughter Emily was 13 and had the flu, we met Schiess, at the druggist.  The pharmacist called her name.  I clamored over to investigate whether it were she, the famous Schiess.  “Who wants to know?” she replied.  As she left, after good banter, she turned in her slicker and totting an umbrella pronounced this blessing: “One day you will be a Methodist bishop”.  I thought at first she was addressing me.  But no, she was talking to Emily. Thank you, our daughter replied.  You may visit the birthplace of women’s suffrage, the one hundredth anniversary of which we have just past during Covid, and more broadly the advent of feminism in Seneca Falls, on the shores of Seneca Lake.  Anthony’s witness stands out among the witness of so many others:  your grandmother, your mother, your sister, your wife, your daughter, your pastor, Betty Bone Schiess, and so many others.  Who can forget the motto of Susan B. Anthony: “Failure is impossible” (on her 86th birthday, 1906).  “Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about reform.  Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation.”

Sometimes the freedom train went a bit astray across this lakescape.  Exuberance can produce minor collisions and occasional wanderings.  When we get so focused on the speedometer that we forget to drive the car safely, then trouble arises.  That is, Woodstock 50 years ago paled by comparison with the communal experiments along the Erie Canal 150 years ago. The Shaker Community and the Oneida Community perhaps can bracket our discussion.  Under Mother Ann Lee, and starting in farm country near New Lebanon (Albany area), not far from Tanglewood and our BU musical program there, the shaking Quakers firmly addressed the matter of social distancing.  They required it at all times, except in the sacred dance of Sunday worship.  They forbade it.  Women and men came together only once a week, on Sunday morning, for ecstatic singing and dancing, hence their name.  This made church attendance somewhat more than casual liturgical observance.  However, the practice did not amplify the community itself: infant baptisms lacked the requisite infant, and so were infrequent.  Consequently the Shakers moved to Cleveland where they blended into Sherwood Anderson’s new Ohio, returning to the old ways of hard work, monogamy, and frugality.  In short, they became Methodists.   But hear again the beautiful Shaker tune:

Tis a gift to be loving

Tis the best gift of all

Like a gentle rain love falls to cover all

When we find ourselves in the place just right

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight 

When true, simplicity is gain

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed

To turn, turn, will be our delight

‘Till by turning, turning, we come round right

Or you may want to read about the Oneida community in the book, Without Sin, the best review in our generation of their somewhat different experiment.  Also, along the Erie Canal the Oneida community set out to find heaven on earth, the end of all oppressions, and even the hope that, as John H Noyes read from Revelation, “death itself will be no more”.  And they abandoned any and all social distancing.  It would another three sermons to trace through the detail of complex marriage, stirpiculture, and communal life among the Oneida Community.Although I went to High School in Oneida.  They I do not recall a full lesson on the matter of stirpiculture, the heart of the Oneida experiment.  Three hundred in number at their greatest growth, the community produced bear traps and then silver, continuing, in some fashion, until just a few years ago.  Of all the utopian experiments, the Oneida project is the most fascinating.  After word got out about the doings and practices in Oneida, clergy in Syracuse banded together and ran them out of town, first to Canada and then to the Midwest.  Noyes died on the trip, and the community disappeared, except in some of  the silverware on your dinner table, in wedding gifts, and in many restaurants.  Let us remember the love of freedom, as Noyes expressed it, the aspiration to spirit and life, even if we cannot affirm his conclusion: “I am free of sin and in a state of Perfection”.

One last story in this Gift from the Lake.  Norman Vincent Peale, who began his ministry in Syracuse NY. When we were at Union Seminary in New York the faculty there, both regularly and rightly criticized the inadequate theology of his Marble Collegiate Church.  James Sanders sternly referred to this famed congregation as the “First Church of Marduke”, not an accolade.  Of course you know that for fifty years, a graduate of Boston University, and Ohio Wesleyan, and a proponent of the power of positive thinking held forth, without notes, from the Marduke pulpit.  His son in law, Arthur Caliandro, followed him, with notes.  You may not trust his theology.  I myself am a critic, schooled as I was in the dour, German realism of Tillich, Niehbuhr, and company.  You may find it too shallow.  Everbody has their criticism of Norman Vincent Peale.  Even Adlai Stevenson had gripes.  When attacked from the Marduke pulpit,  Stevenson defended his Christianity on the basis of the Apostle to the Gentiles, all this in 1956, and rounded out his peroration thus:  “Sir, I find Paul appealing, but Peale, appalling.”  You too may find Paul appealing and Peale appalling.  Yet as young man in Syracuse, University Church, hte found there a happy people.  He found there a positive people.  He found here a hopeful people, an optimistic congregation.  Why, they were so good to him that he relaxed and fell in love and married an SU coed, Ruth.  Our good friend Forrest Whitmeyer, a graduate of Boston Latin by the way, knew them both well.  It was that native buckeye spirit married to that native orange soul, and it produced the power of positive thinking, itself a form of faith and freedom not to be forgotten. Our daughter this last week affirmed her own commitment to the ‘power of positive relationships’. Well, it brought Norman to mind. The Peales, Ruth and Norman both, did not leave the project of freedom to somebody else.  It is biblical and within limits faithful to remember Peale’s seven most important words: “You can if you think you can.”   At least we could admit the contrary as true:  If you think you can’t, you probably can’t and probably won’t.

From the past, we may today receive a Gift from the Lake.  God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.  The faith of Jesus Christ and the freedom of Jesus Christ we celebrate today.  Our forebears were disinclined to leave the pursuit of freedom to others.  They lived with faitht that the center could hold. They seized freedom in their own hands and by their own lives.  They did not wait on others.  They did not pause to seek a secret blessing.  They did not wait until some ethereal sign emerged.  They did not expect some magic insight.  They preferred deliverance to diffidence. Real love means taking historical responsibility.

In earshot of our Lord’s teaching, there awaits us every Lord’s day a personal question:  as a Christian man or woman, what are you going to do to continue to expand the circle of freedom, spirit, life and love in our time?  Where is your tribal council to create?  Where is your slavery to escape?  Where is your North Star to publish?  Where is your franchise to find?  Where is your libertinism to avoid?  Where is your hope to share?  When it comes to spirit and life, as announced in John 6, will you lift a hand?

In thanks for these years of sea gifts, we bring you this summer morning a Gift from the Lake.  A fresh water gift to honor a salt water gift.  Recall what Anne Murrow Lindberg described in her little book about the ocean and the soul, Gift from the Sea, whose title has inspired this morning’s sermon.  She recommends, strongly, time spent on the shore.  She wrote some years ago: “This is what one thirsts for, I realize, after the smallness of the day, of work, of details, of intimacy – even of communication, one thirsts for the magnitude and universality of a night full of stars, pouring into one like a fresh tide…I would like to achieve a state of inner spiritual grace from which I could function and give as I was meant to in the eye of God.”

So, dear friends, travel then 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, 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 and heard, a gathered and thus addressable community, you and I and all together

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

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