Archive for the ‘Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students’ Category

Sunday
April 19

The Right Time

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Peter 1:3-9

John 20:19-31

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          It’s strange to preach this sermon to an empty chapel with the doors locked. As we continue practicing safe social distancing, Marsh Chapel has moved to recording a new sermon and greeting each week with pre-recorded material from services in years past, when we were able to physically gather together in community. We pray that we will all safely return to greeting one another from closer than a 6-foot distance and come together in the Nave of Marsh Chapel in the future, but not before public health officials tell us it is possible to do so. In the meantime, we are glad for our virtual community and hope that you and yours are well and pray for those experiencing illness or loss at this time.

          When the concern for public health arose in mid-March we learned that staying at home if we were non-essential workers would be one of the best ways to “flatten the curve.” Those of us able to do so without losing employment find ourselves in a privileged position. Students were sent home to learn from afar via online platforms and parents’ work schedules were quickly upended by balancing family responsibilities with working from home. The first few weeks we spent trying to adjust to sharing space with our loved ones 24/7, trying to establish new routines, and adapting to remote socializing and business. Initially we may have thought that this would only last a few weeks, we would get back to normal sooner rather than later and these series of events would just be a bump in the road that we would look back on later in the year and say “oh, yeah, those couple of weeks were strange, but I’m glad that’s over now.” As one week of staying at home turned into two weeks, turned into three, and now a month, it appears that this reality will be our foreseeable future until enough testing and public health measures can be taken to ensure that we can slowly start emerging from our houses. 

          The past month of staying home has had an interesting effect on time. Every day has started to meld into the next as we lack changes in our locations and interactions with others. “Catching up” with friends via Zoom or Facetime quickly devolves into conversations about the most recent news, a depressing topic, or what shows you’ve binged in the past week. Keeping track of what happened on which day, what day today is, how many days we’ve been at home has become a challenge as we start to feel a little like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, reliving the same patterns over and over again. Our experience of chronological time has been affected, leaving us feeling like time itself might not exist in the haze of this pandemic.

          On top of our loss of chronological time, however, we are continually reminded that our experience is extraordinary, or as you may have heard so frequently in the past few weeks “unprecedented.” Despite the monotony many of us are experiencing in our daily lives, the effects on the economy, our healthcare systems, and communities of color, who face the highest infection and death rates, have led to national and global upheaval. “These are unprecedented times.” Unprecedented is the fancier shorter way of “never before.” And it’s true. These times are like nothing any of us have experienced before. We find ourselves trying to mentally cope with circumstances that seem to only worsen as the days go by with no known end in sight. How do we respond to this crisis? Are we scared? Are we steadfast? Are we questioning? Do we reject it in disbelief or cynicism?  Even when our immediate situation might come to a close, we do not know what the future holds and anticipate that we will not be able to return to business as usual. 

          In today’s gospel the disciples also experience an unprecedented circumstance. Chronologically, not much time has passed between Jesus’ death on Friday and the evening of the first day of the week. They are in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic situation. Fearful, they gather together in hiding after the death of Jesus. Having heard from Mary Magdalene that she saw Jesus at the tomb after his death, they still do not believe that his resurrection could have been possible. As Biblical scholar Joy J. Moore states: “The disciples are fearful. Good news does not erase fear. Good news, incredible news, can ignite hope, but even hope does not eliminate genuine fear. So, there they were in a familiar place desperate with unfamiliar fear.” Locked inside, they encounter Jesus for themselves, first surprised and scared and then amazed at what they had seen. 

          It makes sense that Thomas, who was not with them, reacts the same way the disciples did at hearing Mary’s account of Jesus appearance.  He doesn’t believe because who could? People coming back from the dead isn’t a normal occurrence. After witnessing the brutal way Jesus was treated by the authorities, how could he possibly come back from the dead and speak to the disciples? The realities of the situation overshadow the possibilities for belief in such an unprecedented act.

          Imagine the week between Jesus’ appearance to the disciples and Thomas’ experience – the disciples, transformed and full of hope after their encounter unsuccessfully try to convince Thomas of this new reality, who, for logical reasons cannot accept his friends’ accounts. Thomas wants not only to see, but to touch to fully understand this new reality. He wants concrete assurance in the claims that his friends are making. In a time of crisis, he seeks out tangible confirmation that the reality they claim is true. 

          What happens to Thomas in encountering Jesus is much more than just a recognition of the person he knew in resurrected form as the rest of the disciples have reported. We hear from Thomas’ lips the ultimate recognition of who Jesus truly is: “My Lord and my God.” This moment of recognition is more than just out of amazement, it is a deep seeded understanding of the true nature of Jesus as indwelling with God as Christ. A Kairos moment is revealed through this utterance. Kairos, a Greek word for time, refers to “the right time” whereas chronos refers to “formal time,” or the time we know which flows in a linear fashion. There is a difference between these two words, especially in how they are used the New Testament. Kairos is specifically used to signify times which are appointed by God for a specific purpose. Thomas’ recognition of the true nature of Jesus exposes a fundamental shift in God’s relationship with the world through Christ. It will ignite the possibility of hope in the face of fear and belief in times of uncertainty. The presence of a resurrected Jesus reminds Thomas, the disciples and us of the divine power that undergirds our existence and spurs us to action in the world.

          We too, are in a Kairos moment. Famed protestant theologian, Paul Tillich frames Kairos in this way: “Kairos in its unique and universal sense is, for Christian faith, the appearing of Jesus as the Christ. Kairos in its general and special sense for the philosopher of history is every turning-point in history in which the eternal judges and transforms the temporal.” Tillich then goes on to explain the specific use of Kairos in moments of crisis which open up a connection between what he calls the “unconditional”, an experiential quality of that which is most ultimate, which many may refer to as God, and the conditional, the regular everyday interactions we have. In Tillich we hear an echo of Thomas’ Kairos moment – he asserts the need to see and touch to believe, but in the moment of seeing and touching, experiences a transcendence which enables him to identify the divine nature of Jesus. Tillich argues that we should be open to the Kairos moments which can help us adequately address the challenges of crisis moments in our society in prophetic ways to make change. Kairos moments help us to see the possibility of God’s kindom on Earth.

          Last week, Dean Hill called us to see with “resurrection eyes.” That is, to see the world in the midst of struggle in a new way filled with possibility and hope rather than darkness and death. In experiencing their own Kairos moment, in seeing Jesus resurrected, the disciples too, are seeing with resurrection eyes. While they still may have some fear and uncertainty present within them, they also carry the hope of the good news of resurrection with them. They hold in tension the physical realities of this world, and the world beyond death that Jesus reveals to them through God. We must also be willing to let this moment in time, this moment of Kairos when we experience so much turmoil, to call us to action. 

          Perhaps one of the best rhetorical examples of Kairos was given in April 1967 by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in discussing the pressing need to address the Vietnam war. King stated:

          “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

 

          The fierce urgency of now awakens the prophetic voice within us that seeks out justice and righteousness in the world. In many ways, the response to our current crisis is “too late.” We have lost tens of thousands of people to COVID-19 in the United States – more than any other country in the world at this point. Our failure to respond quickly and preemptively to this crisis has created major upheavals in our lives and in our social and economic structures, exposing the cracks present in our systems leading to almost a complete and total collapse. When it becomes necessary for essential workers to risk their health in order to earn a pay check because without it they would not survive, we need to re-evaluate what our priorities are. When those laid off cannot access their state unemployment offices to begin earning benefits because of stressed resources, we need to reevaluate what our priorities are. When those who are marginalized by our society cannot get access to healthcare until it is an absolute emergency, we need to reevaluate what our priorities are. When healthcare workers cannot effectively do their jobs without fear of being infected because they lack proper protective gear which governors have to battle over to gain access to, we need to reevaluate what our priorities are. The pandemic has shown us what can go wrong when we do not adequately prepare for the safety and security of others, when our leadership fails us, when we question the advice of experts in order to soothe our desire for our lives to be uninterrupted.

          While the coronavirus has led us to an immediate public health crisis which we must to respond to or face large-scale sickness and death, climate change is also a looming crisis which, over time, will create global instability on economic, ecological, and social levels. Almost exactly 50 years ago, 20 million Americans gathered all across our country raise the public consciousness about growing environmental crises and the need to address them in order to secure a more sustainable future. Their prophetic voices joined together in response to the affects of widespread pollution on Earth’s systems. Rivers on fire, mass extinctions caused by pesticides, clouds of smog from leaded gasoline, and risks to human health in places like Love Canal, NY demanded a change in how Americans treated the Earth. The first Earth Day was held nationally on April 22, 1970, spurred by the words and actions of Senator Gaylord Nelson, an environmentalist from Wisconsin, who stated “Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.” Earth Day would spur the federal government to establish the Environmental Protection Agency which was tasked with governmental oversight of laws like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

          Over time, our understanding of the injustices of environmental degradation has grown. Earth Day is now a global recognition of the ways we are all connected and the need to preserve our fragile ecosystems to promote the health of the Earth, and by default, the health of the human race. The challenge with environmental degradation is that it is not always immediately apparent. While fiercely urgent on a historical timeline of human existence, the problems of the future seem too far off to address in the present moment. In 1970, people called for drastic changes to the ways we consumed with the thought of protecting the Earth for future generations. 

          The resulting regulations implemented created conditions that pushed off negative consequences and many skeptics thought that the initial concern was an overreaction. But that that’s the thing with prevention: if it works, the negative outcomes that are forecasted will not arise because we acted expediently to address them. The old adage is true “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Climate change still looms as a force that could continue to upend our “normal” lives. Flooding, droughts, rising sea levels, and increases in the spread of new viruses, including those which cause pandemics, will all result from climate change in the coming years. In fact, scientists have been predicting for years that pandemics would be a consequence of climate change. We cannot say we were not warned about these devastating events when they happen.

          The pandemic crisis we face now is a wake-up call. It is a Kairos moment when we can accept the presence of God’s kindom on Earth in following our call to be good neighbors, stewards, and seekers of justice. We can pretend that climate change and new illnesses will not affect us, but the reality is that they all will. We live in a closed system. We are all connected. Ignoring the advisement of scientists and scholars will not make our future problems go away. Refusing to see or hear what happens to others as a means of self-preservation ultimately creates chaos for all. We have the opportunity to seek out new ways to support one another by creating lasting, systemic change that ensures we all have access to healthcare, everyone can earn a living wage, and we can care for the Earth which ultimately cares for us. We cannot go back to “normal” when this is over. We must be changed by this Kairos moment. What we do now makes a difference in what the future will hold. Faith is the foundation of this. Our belief in that which is not yet seen is what can be. The right time is now.

          Amen.

Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

Sunday
January 12

Right Relationship

By Marsh Chapel

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Isaiah 42:1-9

Matthew 3:13-17

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Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Good morning! Welcome to a new year, a new decade, a time that years ago seemed so far off in the future – 2020. We’re solidly into this new year now, having finished our holiday festivities and returned to our “regular” lives of work and school (although our students still have one more week of break to enjoy). We’re back to early morning risings, rush-hour commutes, and the horizon of what this new year will have in store for us individually, in our local and national communities, and the world.

Like some of you, I was fortunate enough to spend my holiday break with my family. Christmas and New Year’s fell on Wednesdays this year, extending my time with them just a little bit longer than normal and allowing for some deep rest and relaxation. It also meant that I was treated to my mom’s cooking and baking. Baking is a big part of my family’s Christmas celebrations. My mom mixes her fruitcake batter sometime in November every year so that it can be steamed and then wrapped in sherry-soaked cheesecloth and aluminum foil, stored in the large black lobster pot in our basement until it is appropriately aged and ready to be distributed to family, friends, and neighbors at Christmastime. I know what you’re thinking – fruitcake is the ultimate Christmas-time gift punchline, but people LOVE my mom’s fruitcake. In addition to fruitcake there’s a day of baking pumpkin bread, and then, of course, baking Christmas cookies: Sugar jumbles, peanut butter Hershey’s kiss, mincemeat (my dad’s favorite), peanut butter, and the old standard, chocolate chip.

All of this baking in my youth has led to my own love of baking as an adult. But there’s something about the way my mom makes things that I still haven’t quite been able to capture. Maybe it’s because the recipes I have inherited from her aren’t actually the recipes she uses. For example, the recipe I have for pumpkin bread, which she copied from her own recipe card, is incorrect. I only found this out at Christmas this year. Number one – she doesn’t use nutmeg. Even though it’s in the recipe. Only cinnamon will do. Number two – the recipe calls for 3 cups of sugar…the recipe yields six loaves, so it’s not as sugary as you’re thinking. But my mom only uses one cup of sugar. Just one. It doesn’t say that anywhere in the recipe that I have. Granted the pumpkin bread I made still came out just fine, even with using nutmeg and the 3 cups of sugar, but it didn’t taste like I how I remembered. Those little tweaks and shifts in family recipes often yield better results, but we only find them out by either making mistakes or through direct communication from the recipe owner. There are many other recipes I could list where my mom instructs to add things like flour “until it’s enough” – actions you can only learn through practiced trial and error. The recipe is a guideline, but not the rule of how to get things just right. Sometimes, it’s through relationship with another that we really find out the “right” way to do something.

Many of us struggle with wanting to get things “right.” People seek a plan, direction, a recipe if you will for finding the best way to create the most fulfilling life, whatever that might mean for them individually. We compare ourselves to others and feel less accomplished or like we don’t know which path to take sometimes. Wouldn’t it be great to have a recipe, or a set of instructions that can help us learn what to do when aspects of our lives don’t turn out the way we expected? How can we find those necessary edits or tricks that can help us accomplish the things we need to do?

There’s a plethora of decisions and actions that may worry us today. Some of them are personal, like how to live a healthy, generous, and loving life. Many are beyond our personal control, however. We see our communities divided by ideologies and bigotry. We witness global powers threatening and, in some cases, executing attacks on other countries, leaving civilians injured or killed and provoking fear, anxiety, and hatred. Natural disasters, such as the wildfires in Australia and the compounding earthquakes in Puerto Rico, some on scales we’ve never witnessed before, destroy homes, habitats, take lives, and make recovery seem improbable. Clearly these kinds of problems have no set out guides for response – but we have ethical insights from our religious tradition that can help to guide us in times of trouble such as these. Combined with our lived experience and our relationships with others, we learn how best to live out our Christian calling in the world, sometimes making mistakes, but hopefully moving toward sharing love and establishing justice.

Prophetic language is an important part of the Judeo-Christian heritage. The prophets found in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament as many Christians refer to it, perform a variety of functions for the Israelite community. Prophets have the power to see and name what is happening presently while at the same time bringing attention to the possibilities of what could be. They operate at multiple levels within the community: as an ethical guide, a theological interpreter, a political critic, and an advocate for social welfare. The prophetic voice changes as the community and its circumstances change. When the people or leaders are not living into the will of God, prophets bring harsh warnings of potential outcomes and remind them of the important commitment they’ve established with God through their covenantal relationship. When the community is in disarray, prophets remind the people of their ethical responsibilities to one another and to God. Prophets can also challenge the status quo to bring about necessary change in the hearts and minds of leaders and the people, sometimes challenging temporal authority in order to seek true divinely-inspired justice for the community. The prophetic voice carries the nuances of behavior that go beyond the regular teachings and beliefs found in sacred texts and practices, connecting the abstract ideals of God’s will to direct actions in particular contexts. It provides the guidance similar to notes scribbled in the margins of a long established recipe.

In today’s reading from Isaiah, we are confronted with Deutero-Isaiah transmitting the words of God to the Israelites who are living in a time of exile. Although the language used initially is the singular “he”, God is speaking to the community of Israel as a whole. They, collectively, are “the servant.” The Babylonians have just captured Judah and destroyed the temple in this context, leaving the Israelites without a home and with a feeling of hopelessness. The Israelites, reasonably, could have been so anguished and angry about their exile that they would not trust in God. They could have disbanded as a community and lost trust in one another. They could have turned on other communities and harmed them in their frustration. But instead, the voice of God through the prophet reminds them of their right relationship with God and others. What is appropriate is not to take out frustration and anger on others, but to be a light to the nations of the world, a community established in justice and righteousness. A community that leads by not harming those who are oppressed, but who strives to cease such oppression from existing. Establishing a community that does not see their defeat in Judah as an end, but as the possibility of new beginning.

In today’s Gospel reading, the concept of what is “right” or appropriate comes to us in a different way. Jesus approaches John to be baptized by him. John doesn’t understand this request. To him, Jesus has more authority. Jesus should baptize him. But Jesus knows for what has to take place in his life that he must be baptized by John, for it will “fulfill all righteousness”. It is the “right” way to do this. The right execution of being in relationship with one another for Jesus is to not assert his authority by becoming the one who baptizes, but in modeling that through baptism, God calls us in to holy relationship. John’s calling in the world is to be a baptizer. It is his vocation. For Jesus to disregard John’s calling in the world, particularly as a prophet foretelling Jesus’ own arrival, would go against God’s will. In the servant-relationship that is formed by Jesus’ presence, he reverses that structure of authority. The scene of Jesus’ baptism is an indication of what his ministry will look like. He goes to the wilderness, to the literal margins of society, and is baptized because it is the right action to take.

We also know John’s baptism of Jesus is right because the Holy Spirit appears and the voice of God states that Jesus is God’s beloved, with whom God is well pleased. Matthew echoes the introduction of of Isaiah 42, connecting the mission of the beloved servant with Jesus’ ministry in the world. John and Jesus’ relationship is one that establishes the correct order of events, but the presence of God in three forms creates yet another relationship which we echo in our own baptism. We enter into a relational community – with God of course, but also with those who follow Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is claimed by God, just as we are claimed by God through our own baptism. God chooses us to be a part of the large family found through Christ. We are all siblings together sharing in the love and care exemplified by Jesus and sustained in us through the Holy Spirit. Jesus instructs us through his ministry and teaching what God’s will is to look like in the world and through following that will, we create a more just society.

In our baptism, we take on the call to fulfill all righteousness. Part of our relationship with the Divine is to act faithfully in alignment with that which God calls us to. While divine will is not always easy to discern – we don’t have doves descending or the voice of God proclaiming us to others – we have basic tenets which we know are central to our beliefs. Jesus’ ministry and death teaches us how God’s will can be lived out. Loving our neighbor and our enemy. Seeking justice for those who are voiceless, poor, oppressed, or imprisoned. Coming together to in community to worship and share our lives with one another. Practicing forgiveness against those who have wronged us. While we may know these ideas to be central to our identity as Christians, complex social/political/ethical situations can cause us to question what exactly is the right way to go about living out our faith.

Earlier this week I was seated at table with religious professionals from around the Boston area. We all work on college or university campuses and help students navigate their spiritual journeys, asking big questions, facing the realities of today with their personal histories and identities. While the meeting convened was to discuss an inter-collegiate interfaith experience, we ended up discussing the overall climate on our campuses and the best ways in which we could support our students in. The college campus is a microcosm of the outside world. It may not necessarily reflect all of the challenges of the world completely, but in some cases it amplifies conversations that only simmer slowly underneath the cultural milieu of the rest of the country or world. In a time like ours, on the precipice of an election, my colleagues and I worried if rhetoric would become more vitriolic than it has already been and how we would weather possible challenges in our communities this year. With a rise in anti-Semitic acts, bigoted violence against people of color, assertions of political leaders as demigods, and the continued exclusion of LGBTQ people from religious leadership, students have plenty of questions about how to best navigate confrontational situations, or whether to engage in them at all.

We ended up pausing our meeting to hold a 45-minute discussion about ally-ship and what that means for us as administrators, as people of faith, as religious leaders, and as those who are in positions of power in comparison to those experiencing oppression. What does it mean to bring together people who share opposing views? When is it a healthy way of learning and listening, and when is it unhealthy and abusive? When do we encourage students to have conversation even if they don’t agree, and when is it okay for them to not participate in those conversations? How do we execute this kind of work in a way that is supportive, truthful, and generous while still challenging that which is hateful and stands in opposition to our beliefs? How can we encourage our students to take part in this work, and when is it time for us to step in? We want to seek justice for our students, but we also don’t want to interfere in conversations that might not be our places to fight.

What we discovered in our discussion was that our need to be in right relationship within these situations depended upon us identifying who we are – the many identities we hold – and knowing when our voices were needed to amplify those who are facing oppression. As one of my colleagues put it, we need to be hearing in a new way those who are hurting and focusing on how our relationships matter. It is through this self-reflection that we can see the ways in which our society may privilege certain aspects about our existence that prevents us from fulling understanding the harm experienced by others. For Christians, we can rest in the assurance that we are baptized in the name of the Triune God, that God bestows grace upon us no matter how difficult the decisions we must make and the wrong turns or stumbles we may encounter. We must claim our Christian identity in the face of evil and boldly state, “I am baptized!” as Lutheran pastor and speaker Nadia Bolz-Weber reminds us in her article, “How to Say Defiantly, ‘I am Baptized!”’.

The longer I try to participate in God’s redeeming work in the world the more I am convinced despite my proclivity to cynicism that there are indeed forces that seek to defy God. And nowhere are we more prone to encroaching darkness than when we are stepping into the light. If you have ever experienced sudden discouragement in the midst of healthy decisions, or if there is a toxic thought that will always send you spiraling down, or if there is a particular temptation that is your weakness then I make the following suggestion: take a note from Martin Luther’s playbook and defiantly shout back at this darkness “I am Baptized” not I was, but I am baptized. [1]

I would add that it will also benefit us to be open to listening to those harmed and naming ways that we can be in right relationship with them while also being in right relationship with God. That is what seeking justice is all about. While God gives us the ingredients necessary to live in alignment with Divine will, sometimes we need additional instructions that come from observing our context and listening to those set at the margins of society, or listening to those with no voice at all.

Our desire to live into the righteousness and justice that God sets as a standard for those called to him is echoed throughout the history of Christianity. Figuring out our ethical responsibilities is a challenge, but we are guided by those who came before us and those who are around us now. Martin Luther, in his treatise on the Two Kinds of Righteousness reminds us what our commitment to seeking justice and righteousness means for those who follow Christ in Baptism:

“For you are powerful, not that you may make the weak weaker by oppression, but that you may make them powerful by raising them up and defending them. You are wise, not in order to laugh at the foolish and thereby make them more foolish, but that you may undertake to teach them as you yourself wish to be taught. You are righteous that you may vindicate and pardon the unrighteous, not that you may only condemn, disparage, judge and punish. For this is Christ’s example for us…”[2]

Being in right relationship with one another causes us to change how we see the world. Our willingness to hear the Gospel enables us to welcome and include those who feel excluded, to console those who are suffering, and to seek justice for those who face oppression. It opens our eyes to possibility. Our ability to listen to those who suffer and pay attention to the world around us gives us indications of the best ways to apply the Gospel in the world. We see what is, but also what can be in a deeply broken world.

Amen.

-Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “How to Say Defiantly, ‘I am Baptized!”’, Sojourners, January 20, 2011, https://sojo.net/articles/how-say-defiantly-i-am-baptized

[2] Martin Luther, “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 162.

Sunday
October 6

Living Faith

By Marsh Chapel

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2 Timothy 1:1-14

Luke 17:5-10

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Faith and Fear

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” They do so emphatically. Enthusiastically. Or perhaps fearfully. At the very least, we know the translators ended this statement with an exclamation point: “Increase our faith!”

In order to understand why the apostles would make such a demand, it’s important to understand the context of this scripture passage. The lectionary lets us down a bit because it starts this scene in media res, in the middle of the action. Jesus has already begun addressing the apostles when this week’s reading from Luke starts. Immediately before their request for more faith, Jesus tells the disciples that they must not become stumbling blocks for others and forgive those who sin against them if they are repentant, even if those people repeatedly sin against them. The disciples draw a logical conclusion: if they are to be so forgiving, so full of love, then they must also have more faith. They turn to Jesus and say, “Increase our faith!”

The disciples want to do better. They want to be Jesus’ followers in the best way possible. To them, if only they could increase their faith, they would be able to follow Jesus’ commands. They could heal more people. They could evangelize more effectively. They could care more, love more, and forgive more. They don’t think that their faith is adequate to meet such demands. Whomever can forgive and forgive and forgive again must be someone who is brimming with faith.

But Jesus points out to the apostles that it isn’t a specific amount of faith that makes faithful actions possible. Faith the size of a mustard seed – a very tiny amount of faith – has the ability to do miraculous things. It can uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the ocean. Mulberry trees infamously have very intricate and complex root systems, making them difficult to move. Also Jesus says that the bush will be planted in the sea. Not thrown into the sea, but planted, where one would assume, it would continue to grow. So, not only would a mustard-seed sized faith allow for the movement of something that seems immoveable, but also its flourishing in a new place. This mustard seed-sized faith is very powerful.

We all have moments when we think our faith can’t be enough. Moments when we are faced with a task, an interaction, some “thing” that we don’t think we can do. Trust me, after years of slogging through academic work for a PhD, there were plenty of moments when I threw up my hands and said “I can’t do it!” We tell ourselves and others that if only we had more time, more experience, more confidence, we could do what is asked of us. Maybe we find ourselves in a place of fear about what is to come or what we don’t know. We think ourselves incapable of finding the wherewithal to face an uncertain future or outcome.  Doubt and fear are the opposite of faith. Fear prevents us from moving forward. Fear tells us that we’re not good enough, we’re not smart enough, we’re incapable.

The point that Jesus makes is that it is not the size of one’s faith that matters but how and whether it is used properly. One’s faith is not a private matter. Faith in God is the foundation for all of our interactions in the world. Faith is relational. Faith is a commitment. Faith requires trust and love. Faith that only resides within a person as a private means of belief in God, but that does not spur them to action, is like having no faith at all. Martin Luther reminds us that while we are justified by faith alone, sola fide, faith is never alone in practice. It must be accompanied by works of love. We must have an active, living faith if we are to follow Jesus. The task of the disciples and for all of us is to allow our faith to overcome our fears in doing what we need to do in the world.
Sometimes, also, it’s that our faith requires us to do things that we don’t want to do. We resist those things that feel too difficult. We fail to speak up in unjust situations. We avoid interaction with those with whom we disagree. We refuse to forgive because we don’t think the other party is worthy of forgiveness. We live in a time when divisions run deep and instead of listening and trying to understand one another, we rush to judge or dismiss on the basis of who we perceive people to be. Our tendencies toward self-preservation and egoism prevent us from experiencing the empathy needed to genuinely share our faith with others.

Jesus cautions against doing works in anticipation of reward with his set of sentences in this reading, however. The actions we do through faith are what is expected of us. We should not anticipate special rewards for doing what we are called to be and do in the world. Jesus’ imagery is jolting for us who live in a context which still suffers the consequences of a history of slavery. To us, one person being enslaved to another is abhorrent. In Jesus’ context, this was not the case. The point that Jesus makes in this description of the slave and master relationship is that we should not expect special rewards or treatments for the things that we are expected to do. The language may be difficult for us to hear, especially depicted in the slave/master relationship, but it is important to recognize that the things we do in faith are things that we ought to do. We may not be uprooting mulberry trees with our commands, but our faith guides every interaction we have on a daily basis.

World Communion Sunday and Our Faith

Today we celebrate World Communion Sunday. In this yearly liturgical tradition we recall how we are all joined together in the Body of Christ no matter our denominations, our backgrounds and cultures, our places of origin. We join together in sharing Holy communion. The act of communion, of eating and drinking, reminds us of our relationships with the Holy Trinity and the world around us.

This week, preeminent Christian Social Ethicist, theologian, and church historian, Dr. Gary Dorrien gave the Lowell lecture at BU’s school of theology. Dorrien described how the field of Social Ethics within the Christian tradition did not exist prior to the late 19th, early 20th century. Social ethicists asserted that Christians must consider the social structures that create sin in the world and look for communal solutions to such problems. The Industrial Revolution created new challenges including addressing factory workers’ wellbeing and safety, child labor, and urban poverty. The realities of Jim Crow laws, segregation, and forced migration to reservations created an unjust society in which those who were perceived as an “other” conflicted with the Christian vision of a world filled with justice and righteousness.

Focusing on the Black and White Social Gospel movements of the early 20th century, Dorrien also made mention of the growth of the ecumenical movement during this time period. Organizations such as the World Council of Churches and the Federal Council of Churches, which would later become the National Council of Churches, formed to provide unified statements aimed at shifting corrupt practices by corporations and building social welfare for all people. One thing that Dorrien pointed out in his presentation is that instead of representatives from different denominations coming together to discuss theological ideas, such as the nature of God or the meaning behind the sacraments, they instead focused on how the Christian faith could actively address problems within societies. The living faith of Christians brought them together to see past theological differences in the interest of assisting those in need. Joining together to create statements and movements for better pay, better working conditions, immigration reform, and racial justice was a unifying force that then lead to deeper understanding between denominations. The result is that many of our Mainline Protestant Denominations in the US now share full communion with one another, allowing for leadership, worship, and cooperation across theological differences.

World Communion Sunday also developed out of the burgeoning ecumenical movements of the 20th century. Today, our relationships with the global community take a much different form than they did in 1933 when the first World Communion Sunday was held. We are more connected to our global neighbors. It is easier now to learn about and observe how people around the world live, work, and experience the world. And yet, we still encounter some of the same challenges that the world experienced in 1933. Political rhetoric that alienates us from one another, the rise of nationalism throughout the world, and corruption and monopolization within corporations seem all too familiar for those of us familiar with world history. Add on to those issues deteriorating ecosystems, massive global economic inequality, and increasing tensions between nations and it might feel like our faith can do very little to address all of the challenges of the present moment.

On a day like today, however, it is important for us to take a moment to reflect on what our faith requires of us. In the reading from Second Timothy, we hear the letter writer, identified as Paul, encouraging Timothy to stay committed to his faith despite the challenges he might face. The faith Timothy shares with his mother and grandmother is “not a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” We must also heed these words. While the global challenges we face today may seem insurmountable, our faith lived out through our actions of love grounded in Christ can lead us to create change and understanding in our world.

I have hope despite the fact that there are so many challenges facing us today. Maybe it’s because I get to encounter future leaders from all over the world on a regular basis. The next generation who is entering into their young adulthood now see the mistakes of the past and feel energized to address those problems. If you need proof of this, look no further than Nobel Peace prize winner, Malala, who fights for equal access to education regardless of gender,  or climate activist Greta Thunberg, who addressed the United Nations in an impassioned speech two weeks ago; Dreamer activists who continue to fight for immigration reform; or the students of Parkland, FL who organized the March for our Lives gun reform activism that increased voter registration and turnout for the last election. It’s important that many of these voices are from people under the age of 25. Their voices carry hopes for the future of our country and the world in which there is more justice and less violence, more care and less destruction, more acceptance and less ignorance. This week, Marsh Chapel will host a conversation regarding LGBTQ affirmation in the Korean church entitled “God Loves Me. Period. A talk on Queerness, Koreaness, and Church.” This is just one example in our midst of the next generation of the church seeking to affirm the dignity and wellbeing of all people. Moving forward, the church must also become more receptive to differences, finding opportunities to engage people of different faiths to create a just and sustainable world.

United Methodist Elder, artist, and author Jan Richardson offers a reflection for World Communion Sunday that reminds us of the gifts of coming together in community. On her website, The Painted Prayerbook, her poem “And the Table Will Be Wide” accompanies her artwork entitled “The Best Supper.” A play on words of the Last Supper, the image is of a circular table from above with people from all nationalities (and one cat!) sharing a meal together. In the center of the table are loaves of bread, representing different types found around the world. Some of the people depicted hold glasses of wine high, others embrace their neighbors. Listen now to Richardson’s words in “And the Table Will be Wide”:

And the table

will be wide.

And the welcome

will be wide.

And the arms

will open wide

to gather us in.

And our hearts

will open wide

to receive.

And we will come

as children who trust

there is enough.

And we will come

unhindered and free.

And our aching

will be met

with bread.

And our sorrow

will be met

with wine.

And we will open our hands

to the feast

without shame.

And we will turn

toward each other

without fear.

And we will give up

our appetite

for despair.

And we will taste

and know

of delight.

And we will become bread

for a hungering world.

And we will become drink

for those who thirst.

And the blessed

will become the blessing.

And everywhere

will be the feast.[1]

At God’s Holy table we all are welcome, no matter where we come from. At God’s Holy table, there is enough to feed our spiritual needs. At God’s Holy table, we are able to free ourselves from those things that cause fear and trust in the power of the Divine that permeates all. At God’s Holy table we are reminded of the promises of Jesus and our commitments to enact our faith in the world. At God’s Holy table our mustard seed faith germinates. Amen.

-Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

 


[1] AND THE TABLE WILL BE WIDE, Jan Richardson, https://paintedprayerbook.com/2012/09/30/and-the-table-will-be-wide/.

 

Sunday
July 14

Bearing Fruit

By Marsh Chapel

 Click here to hear the full service

Luke 10:25-37

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Bearing Fruit

Good morning! It’s good to be back with all of you here at Marsh Chapel. Summer is here and I am so glad. For me, summer means a slower pace, a time to relax and recharge. At a place like BU, the school year can be hectic, so by the time we hit June and July, it’s wonderful to have a moment to catch our breath, take stock of the previous academic year, and prepare for what the next year will offer.

Summer is also a time for travel and new experiences. Some of us are fortunate enough to have the means to take vacations from our regular lives and see new places or at least take a break from our places of work for a little while. But travel brings its own set of challenges – air travel requires you to be at the airport hours before your departure, remembering to take all of the liquids out of your carry-on bag before going through screening, lines after lines after lines of people all anxious to get their travel started in the most expedient way possible. This week, I read an article that confirmed what many of us already observe – air travel affects us emotionally and physically. Cabin pressures can cause some strange changes, like affecting our sense of taste, leading more people to crave or enjoy tomato juice on a plane than they do on the ground. The pressure inside cabins can also affect our mood – we can become more anxious, less friendly, and experience more tension because of decreased oxygen levels. Add on to that the stress of traveling to new places, individual fears and anxieties around travel, the cost of travel and/or vacations, and in some cases, broken forms of transportation and communication that can lead to frustration and all out despair when it comes to getting to where we need to go. It’s no wonder so many people dread the “getting there” part of traveling. 

For two weeks in the last month I was lucky enough to travel to Germany. While I had wonderful experiences during my time in Germany – getting to meet new people, experience the culture of my heritage, and learning new and interesting facts about Luther’s life and times- it was during the not so great experiences that I came to appreciate the kindness and compassion of others. Here’s what happened: I missed my train. Not because I was late; not because I read the schedule wrong; not because I couldn’t get a ticket. No, I missed my train because it came early An hour early. Now, I know you’re saying to yourself: “how is that possible?” Good question. Because in Germany, when there is construction, the trains come early. This is what I learned. 

After missing my train, the rest of my day was spent relying on the kindness of strangers. The woman at the information desk in the Wittenberg train station tried her best to explain to me in a mixture of German and English that even though I missed my train because it came early, I could get on the next train, but that I wouldn’t have an assigned seat. Not understanding that I could still ride on the train without a seat, I panicked thinking I would be spending another unplanned night in Wittenberg. The woman at the desk was trying so hard to help me, even going as far to type into google translate for me, but the translation was incomplete, and I still wasn’t understanding that I could still travel. Fortunately, the woman was willing to speak on the phone with my German friend in Munich, whom I was travelling to see, and he was able to clarify that I could still get on the next train even though I didn’t have a seat assigned.

Once on the train, I realized that I had no idea what I was doing. I had a huge bag and struggled to get it on the train. Fortunately, a man standing near the door grabbed one end and helped me thrust it up. I also thought finding a space to settle in would be easy. I was wrong. The space in between the main cars that I entered was already occupied by people who were sitting, standing, and generally looking uncomfortable as the train sped along. I stood awkwardly just inside the doorway trying to decide what the best course of action might be. A man across the way caught my eye and smiled, so I made my way over to him. He started speaking to me in German commenting on how full the train was. I then explained that I had already missed my earlier train and that I wasn’t looking forward to standing for the rest of my 4-hour train ride to Munich, especially since I was still tending to a sprained ankle. Without hesitation, he immediately sprung to action and grabbed a porter, explaining to her that I needed to find a seat because I was injured. She replied that there was room in the dining car and instructed me that it was 3 cars from where we were. The man directed me where I needed to go and wished me luck with the rest of my trip as I set off lugging my bag to the dining car. Thinking I was all set after finding a place to settle in, we stopped in Leipzig to let passengers off. An announcement came over the PA system for the train – it wasn’t a regular announcement that was translated into English as the other announcements had been – it was only in German. A chorus of groans erupted around me and people began to look annoyed. I sat for a few minutes thinking of who I could ask for assistance, as I had no idea what was going on. Seated across from me were two German women who had been in conversation since I got on the train. I tentatively asked them if they spoke English and they said “Oh yes!” and then proceeded to explain to me that our train would be delayed an hour and 50 minutes because of a fire near the tracks we were supposed to take. They welcomed me to traveling on the Deutsche Bahn, which they said was “always an adventure.” An adventure indeed. They continued to update me as we sat waiting for more announcements, ending with at least some good news that the conductors had found an alternative route that would only make us a half hour late to Munich. I made it to Munich 5 hours later than I was originally scheduled, and was never so glad for a travel day to end.

I tell you this story not because I’m seeking your pity, but to highlight the care I received from others. Granted, this was not a life and death situation, like that of the Good Samaritan story we heard in the Gospel today, but my day would have been a lot worse had it not been for the kindness of strangers who were willing to help me out when I needed it. I also needed to be willing to accept the help of others in order for the story to end well. Being receptive to help can sometimes be half the battle. We’re all familiar with the age-old trope of the stubborn person who refuses to ask for directions when they are very clearly lost. How many times in our lives are we too stubborn or unwilling to let others help us? Why do we find it difficult to accept help, or seek it out?

Getting help from others doesn’t mean we are weak. It doesn’t mean we’re incapable. It doesn’t mean we’re less than. It means we’re human. We are all here in this one crazy and too short life on Earth together. Being willing to accept help in whatever form it may take – a listening ear, a ride, or physical assistance – requires a bit of humility on our part as well as openness. 

Sometimes when we reflect on the story of the good Samaritan we are drawn to the position of the Samaritan in the story. After all, Jesus uses this as an example to demonstrate to the lawyer questioning him what love of neighbor really entails – seeing the humanity in all who need help, regardless of who they are. Another interpretation of this story by early commentators exists, however, in which humanity is not represented by the Good Samaritan, but rather Christ fills that role. Humanity is the man in the ditch. This depiction emphasizes the salvific quality of Christ; Christ is the unexpected healer and savior of all who helps us out of the ditch. The inn and innkeeper are then the church which cares for and supports us as we recover from our injuries, which in this case would be the injuries to our soul, the sin that has taken ahold of us. By holding these two interpretations in tension with one another, we can understand our role as both needing to accept the love of God as well as express that love to others by showing compassion to those we meet along the way. We must be able to see ourselves as both the person in the ditch and the Good Samaritan, as compassion is built on empathy.

In his theology of justification by faith, Martin Luther emphasized a dualistic understanding of God’s righteousness – that God provides an outside righteousness to all Christians, something that they do not have to do anything to earn. Luther calls this “alien righteousness.” Recognition of the external righteousness granted to us becomes more apparent as we acknowledge the presence of God in our lives. Our faith in God reinforces our knowledge and acceptance of this alien righteousness that we have no control over, but of which we can be made aware and incorporate into our understanding of the world around us. When we do things like come together in worship, hear or read the scriptures, or connect with others in community, we are reminded of the grace offered to us by God through Christ.

The other form of righteousness Luther describes is proper righteousness. These are the expressions of Christian love that people share with one another. Luther is quick to point out that this proper righteousness relies on the presence of alien righteousness in order to be effective. God’s love and care for us allows us to express the same love and care to others. It is in this way that we bear the fruit of the spirit which is spoken of in the epistle to the Colossians that we heard today. You’ll note that in this letter by Paul (or someone who writes as Paul) that he also emphasizes to the community in Colossae that it is the hope in God that they have found through hearing the Gospel that will cause them to bear the fruit of good works in the world. Our ability to be in service to others is informed by our ability to accept God’s love in the first place.

Luther’s describes the relationship between these forms of righteousness through the metaphor of a tree and the kind of fruit it bears in his treatise “On the Freedom of a Christian:”

It is clear that the fruits do not bear the tree and that the tree does not grow on the fruits, also that, on the contrary, the trees bear the fruits and the fruits grow on the trees. As it is necessary, therefore, that the trees exist before their fruits and the fruits do not make trees either good or bad, but rather as the trees are, so are the fruits they bear; so a man must first be good or wicked before he does a good or wicked work, and his works do not make him good or wicked, but he himself makes his works either good or wicked. 

A tree must have good nutrition, proper sunlight, proper minerals in order to flourish and produce good fruit. A tree that does not have these foundational elements will not produce good fruit, if any fruit at all. The person then, must be grounded in the faith and knowledge of God’s grace in order to produce good fruits and works in the world. To expect the fruit to be good without the rootedness in the soil of the grace of God is to not understand the ways in which God’s grace is given freely to all.

We all know that living in community is a challenge. We are each individuals with our own hopes, needs, desires, and motives. Sometimes those hopes and needs align with those of our neighbors; that makes our community an easy place to live in because we agree on seeking out an existence that has a similar world view. More than likely, however, our perspectives will clash with others, leading to disagreement, and in some cases a distrust or even disdain of our neighbor. Sometimes those we think we can trust turn out to not be trustworthy at all, causing us harm instead of love and care.

The question of “who is my neighbor?” still haunts us today. We all fail to see our neighbors for who they are; other human beings who need the care and compassion we also need to survive and thrive in our lives. We may allow things like economic differences, differences in skin color or nationality, or differences in gender shape who we view as our neighbor. Jesus reminds us that those things cannot matter if we are truly seeking to love our neighbor in the way that God commands. 

We must be willing to both accept the compassion of others as well as express that compassion if we are to join together in community. Recently it seems as though much of the public discourse in our communities lacks an emphasis on morality. In an effort to seem “balanced” people draw false equivalencies over issues in our country, failing to acknowledge how certain actions are morally wrong. For example, caging children in detention centers without adequate sanitation and care dehumanizes them and demonstrates a definite problem with the moral compass of our country. If we cannot have compassion for others based on the fact that they too are human, they too are God’s children, they too deserve to be taken care of, then we fail to bear good fruit. If we continue to allow for the degradation of our Earth at the expense of those who are most vulnerable, then we fail to bear good fruit. If we become accustomed to mass shootings and the countless lives lost to gun violence in our country without an adequate response of horror and action, then we fail to bear good fruit.  

I implore you to remember where your roots lie so that you may come to bear good fruit. Your roots lie in the love of God that surpasses all understanding, whose grace is bestowed on us as a free gift that we can choose to employ or not. Let us accept that gift of love and live out our commandment to share that love with others. We are called to be servants and love to our neighbors. Our neighbors are individuals who we encounter every day, but are also those who we may never meet and may only ever understand as an abstracted idea. Our service to others includes seeking justice and righteousness for all, no matter who they are. 

At the end of each worship service, we typically end with a benediction and a response. The benediction offers a blessing to the community gathered and the sending a reminder of that which we are to take with us as we leave worship. Here we typically use “God be in my head” as our sending response.  In my tradition, the service typically ends with the leader dismissing the congregation with the words “Go in peace; serve the Lord” and the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.” So to prepare you for the end of the service, I will state the benediction ending with this dismissal. Let’s practice… “Go in peace, serve the Lord.” “Thanks be to God.” And as you hear and respond to these words, take to heart what the words mean in light of bearing fruit in the world – having been nourished by the words, music, and community of this service today, take them with you to serve and love your neighbor.

Amen.

Dr. Jessica A. H. Chicka

Sunday
April 28

“Divine Presence”

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Revelation 1:4-8

John 20:19-31

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Good morning! Happy Eastertide! Happy Earth Day! There are so many things to be thankful for this morning. Some of us are nearing the end of another academic year, some of us are finishing degrees, and some of us are just happy that life appears to be returning to Boston – trees are sprouting new leaves, flowers are in bloom, and you can hear birds singing in the early morning hours. I’m happy for all of these reasons. Happy for my students that they have succeeded academically through another semester, happy for those who finally see a light at the end of the tunnel that is accomplishing a graduate or undergraduate degree, happy that we have a constant reminder that new life and growth is possible. Plus, we’ve entered into the 50 days of Eastertide, a time when we rejoice in the reality of resurrection – of finding hope when there appears to be no hope left.

Today’s gospel tells us the familiar story of Christ appearing to the disciples after his resurrection. The disciples were frightened, having just lost their teacher and friend via state execution, probably wondering if the same fate would await them as his followers. Even though Jesus indicated that he would return, the disciples did not think it was a possibility. They didn’t believe the prophecies that Jesus proclaimed during his life which prepared the way for his return. So, when he appeared before them in a locked room, they of course were unsure how to process the information in front of them. But after Jesus appears to them, they tell Thomas, who happened to be away that evening. Thomas, like the others, cannot believe that Jesus could be back. He knows that Jesus died and for the others to claim that he was alive again does not make any sense. Jesus still appears to Thomas, who insists on physically touching the wounds of Christ to fully accept that he had, in fact, returned to life after death. Jesus appears and acquiesces to Thomas’ need for physical confirmation, but cautions that those who have faith in the reality of the divine presence of Christ in the world after his death are especially blessed. Should we criticize Thomas for his insistence on getting to see what the other disciples also saw the week previous? I don’t think so – Thomas is trying to wrap his head around an impossible possibility. The only thing that will change his mind is the assurance of divine presence.

This past Monday was Earth Day. Maybe you were extra aware of this because of local initiatives to remind you to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Or maybe you celebrated Arbor Day this past Friday by planting a tree. Here at the chapel, we hosted over 20 BU students and staff to make their own tiny terrariums to help green their desks, dorm rooms, or apartments. Earth Day is our yearly reminder to be more in tune with the state of our home. It’s like a state of the union for the planet. A time when we can choose to tune in and analyze the ways we’ve contributed to healing the Earth and in what ways we could be doing better. I recognize that not everyone has the same frame of mind when it comes to the importance of Earth Day – I am particularly attuned as someone who studies and analyzes environmental problems and the ways in which our Christian faith can guide our care and concern for the Earth.

At the beginning of this month, I attended an eco-symposium which brought together scholars and activists in the field of ecological justice and environmental sustainability to think about the ways that we can collaborate with one another to create change and the roles that faith can play in making that change. It was a great opportunity to meet people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences to share the ways that they are incorporating concern for the Earth into teaching, preaching, and civic engagement at both local and global scales. One of the presenters was the Dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies here at BU, Dr. Adil Najam. Dr. Najam co-authored the Third and Fourth Assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the guiding document for scientists and other environmental policy advocates on the issues of climate change. Dr. Najam made an excellent point in his presentation to us. If you were to look at the Earth as an outsider like you would assess a country, based on overall economics, health, and sustainability, our planet would not seem like a very good place to live. In fact, Dr. Najam referred to the Earth as “Third World planet.” A large portion of our population is impoverished, many face illnesses and even death on a daily basis, and the overall health and sustainability of our planet is poor and decreasing each day. Dr. Najam called our present time an “Age of Adaptation” in which we must address several failures that have led us to our current status – failure of wisdom about scientific consensus, failure to negotiate the necessary responses and responsibility for contributions to climate change, failure of vulnerability between those who are affected and those who cause problems, and a failure of morality in not fully understanding the ethical implications of the complex environmental, political, social, and economic factors at play.[1] He advocated that there needs to be massive overhauls in how we understand our relationships to one another as neighbors living on the same planet, and also how we view our relationship with the Earth.

My belief in the centrality of Christian faith to guide our ethical decisions based in nature is primarily centered in a God-infused understanding of the world held in tension with a notion of God as wholly other and beyond human comprehension. The paradoxical nature of the assertion that God is both fully immanent, that is, present to us through the world around us, while at the same time transcendent, or separate and completely other. My claim to this understanding of the divine develops out of my Lutheran heritage that continuously asks followers of Christ to hold contrasting ideas together about divine relationships with humanity and the world. Luther’s own use of the idea of “finitium capax infiniti” or the finite bearing the infinite, amplifies this paradoxical nature. In particular, he uses this concept in discussing the nature of the Lord’s Supper, asserting that the original elements of bread and wine maintain their qualities while the divine is intermingled with them. Lutheran theologians and ethicists embrace a paradoxical way of approaching the world to guide the pursuit of self-understanding and seeking knowledge about the divine, and then ultimately, the ways in which we can employ such knowledge in our world.

Recently, the presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth Eaton, wrote an article for Living Lutheran, the monthly magazine of the ELCA. The title of the article was “All Created Things” in which Bishop Eaton discussed the importance of maintaining our connections with the world and environments around us. She started by quoting Luther who wrote, “God’s entire divine nature is wholly and entirely in all creatures, more deeply, more inwardly, more present than the creature is to itself.” The idea that all creatures are deeply infused with the presence of the divine is something carried through Luther’s theological claims. God is the undergirding force of all life on Earth – the alpha and omega, beginning and end, an intimate part of life on Earth. Reflecting on this divine presence, Bishop Eaton cautions “…setting ourselves apart from the creation is also physically and spiritually deadly for humans…Physical alienation has spiritual consequences.”[2] The more we disconnect ourselves from the world around us, the less contact we have with the divine. The less we see the ways that our actions affect others, both human and otherkind, the less we see ourselves as a part of the divinely-infused creation. We are incomplete if we deny our relationship with the Earth because that relationship is just as essential as every other relationship we hold dear to us.

It is often difficult to remember that we are a part of the creation. We are so caught up in our daily existence of going to work or school, attending this meeting or that event, caring for our family members, paying bills, making sure we’re keeping up with current trends, or even just spending hours staring at screens all day. We lose touch with the fact that we are a part of the natural world; that our actions have consequences, that we depend on the Earth’s systems for our continued existence. We all want clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, safe and healthy foods to eat. We want these things ensured for future generations as well. But many times we do not act that way. We pretend that our individual behaviors are not contributing to environmental degradation. We choose convenience over sustainability. We want to protect other species of animals, like polar bears floating on untethered glaciers, but not if it’s going to create more work for us. Or we simply don’t know how to respond – it’s easier to push images of deadly wildfires, droughts, or flooding off into the corners of our minds if we are not directly impacted by them. We can’t see climate change as it happens. It’s hard to be fully conscious of long-term changes in sea levels and loss of biodiversity when we have so much else to be concerned about in our immediate future. We may love the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, the calm of sitting next to the Charles River or the top of a mountain, but we find it hard to keep the divine nature infused in each and every bit of the world around us in mind on a daily basis.

For many of us today, just connecting with our human neighbors seems difficult let alone connecting with the rest of creation. We have found new and inventive ways of separating ourselves from one another – not only by physical location or physical barriers, but also through mindsets that automatically close us off from hearing information that could lead to greater understanding and appreciation of our neighbors. If all creatures are filled with the divine presence that is more intimate to them than they could ever know themselves, then all humans also possess this same quality. We encounter difficulties in seeing others as bearers of divine presence repeatedly through racism, xenophobia, and bigotry – the most recent example of which just took place yesterday at Chabad Synagogue of Poway on the final day of Passover and six months after the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Or we can recall the attacks on Catholic churches in Sri Lanka last Sunday during Easter services…or the devastating mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand last month. We continue to face the racism and xenophobia of those seeking asylum in the US, with thousands of children still separated from their families in detention centers around the country. Issues like these will continue to increase as climate change leads to massive migrations of people who will be climate refugees – unable to live in their current home countries because of drought, flooding, famine, or other conditions that will make life unbearable. Our world is in crisis in more ways than one and we must find new ways to respond.

The other day, a friend of mine posted about Fred Rogers. You might be familiar with Mr. Rogers from his PBS show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Many of us grew up with him welcoming us into his home as one of his neighbors, taking us on adventures to learn how crayons are made or explaining that it’s okay to feel our emotions, and how to use our imaginations to take a small yellow and red trolley to a Neighborhood of Make Believe with a King and Queen, talking tigers, owls, and cats. Mr. Rogers was also a Presbyterian minister. While his show wasn’t overly religious, it exuded the central principles of Christianity in secular ways. Mr. Rogers was all about instilling messages of love and kindness in children while also helping them navigate the world around them. The quote that my friend posted an excerpt of what Mr. Rogers said he would want his last broadcasted message to be. He stated:

Well, I would want [those] who were listening somehow to know that they had unique value, that there isn’t anybody in the whole world exactly like them and that there never has been and there never will be. And that they are loved by the Person who created them, in a unique way. If they could know that and really know it and have that behind their eyes on their neighbor and realize, ‘My neighbor has unique value too; there’s never been anybody in the whole world like my neighbor, and that there never will be.’ If they could value that person – if they could love that person – in ways that we know the Eternal loves us, then I would be grateful.[3]

Mr. Rogers reminds us that we should value the uniqueness of each individual, including ourselves, because of our connections to the divine. While he may not use the language of divine presence, his words point to an divine presence that makes each person unique and valuable. Recognition of the unique value of other people is obviously needed in our world today. We can also expand Mr. Rogers’ valuation of human uniqueness to our non-human neighbors as well.

What we need and desire is connection. Our relationships are the things that bind us together as a community. Our selves, our communities, our Earth are built upon the divine presence that undergirds us all. As many of you sitting in the congregation know, I completed my dissertation this year in ecological ethics. Obviously, I couldn’t let an opportunity like this go by without sharing a quote from it with you that I think is particularly apt to the message of locating divine presence in all things:

To stand in the sight of the Earth requires us to acknowledge we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves that is a complex web of interactions. Observing the self as a part of this complex web, with the potential to create and destroy on small and grand scales, brings into question what the human role should be in light of the world. If we are truly a part of God’s creation – not just stewards, but intimately connected with the Earth through our very being – then we must acknowledge that our relationship with the Earth requires the same sort of consideration our other close relationships ask of us. To care. To love. To protect. To seek justice.[4]

We have the capacity for the care and ingenuity needed to address the daunting global environmental problems that we and others will face. We may not have Christ standing before us to prove divine presence in the world, but we do have each other AND the world which can remind us of God’s grace and love. If we are able to recognize the Divine presence in each being – human or not – then we can begin to take responsibility for one another. In our local contexts, whether it is our neighborhood, town, or ecosystem, we have the tools already present to us that can help us develop new ways of being in the world. We can expand our care for one another out of the love that Christ showed to us by recognizing the divine nature infused in each and every thing around us. We can respect the uniqueness of each person, each plant, each animal and what it offers to our Earth community that keeps us bound together in an interconnected web of creation.

Amen.

– Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

[1] Adil Najam, “Age of Adaptation,” Presentation at Boston Symposium on Ecologically Informed Theological Education, April 5, 2019.

[2] Elizabeth Eaton, “All Created Things,” Living Lutheran, March 29, 2019, Accessed April 1, 2019: https://www.livinglutheran.org/2019/03/all-created-things/.

[3] Amy Hollingsworth, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 161.

[4] Jessica Ann Hittinger Chicka, God, Self Humanity Earth: Christian Ecological Ethics in Local Contexts, PhD Dissertation, Boston University, 2019, 271.

Sunday
January 13

Living Our Baptism

By Marsh Chapel

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Isaiah 43:1-7

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Good morning! What a pleasure it is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with you on this first Sunday after the Epiphany! Now, I know that as we emerge from our holiday season and back into the reality of our everyday lives, the transition can be a rough one. Last Sunday, we heard the story of the Wise Men’s arrival at the manger, and Rev. Gaskell’s explanation of the subject of hospitality. However, there was also something else that happened on the “epiphany” that gave it its name. Namely, the wise men shared in a moment of joy when they reached the manger indicated by a star overhead. This was the wise men’s epiphany – the “aha” moment that helped them realize the presence of God in Jesus’ birth. In the church, the season of Epiphany contains scripture readings from the beginning of Jesus’ life and ministry. In everyday use, an epiphany usually refers to that “aha” moment when we realize something, or make a connection, that we hadn’t before. Similarly, in the church, throughout these weeks following the wise men’s own “aha” moment, we continue to explore what Jesus’ ministry means to the world and what affect it has on our own understandings of what it means to be Christian.

Today we celebrate Jesus’ baptism and the ritual of baptism as a sacrament of our church. Our Gospel reading today places us in a scene of John the Baptist explaining that he is not the Messiah, and that his acts of baptism are insignificant in comparison with the Messiah’s baptism. Jesus then comes to be baptized along with others in the Jordan. There is no mention that John is the one who actually performs the baptism. In fact, in the verses left out of our gospel reading today, John is actually imprisoned by Herod. The baptism of the others and of Jesus are just said to have happened.  The focus in Jesus’ baptism is on God’s actions and words after the baptism. In Jesus’ baptism, we see a sign of God’s presence through the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and God naming Jesus as the beloved, with whom God is well pleased. Talk about an “aha” moment – the voice of God speaking to those gathered and the figure of a dove descending from the sky must have been a sight to see! The act of submersion in the water and God’s declaration and presence makes Jesus’ baptism an act of significance. It affirms that Jesus is the one that John has been telling the people about. Jesus is the one who comes to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Martin Luther wrote that “It is of the greatest importance that we regard baptism as excellent, glorious, and exalted…To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by human beings but by God himself.” Baptism reinforces the relationship that God shares with God’s people. It is an indication of the unconditional love and grace that God extends. However, we must understand that this external act only represents what is eternal in God. It is important for baptism, this ritual, to be performed in a physical way because it helps us understand through our senses what God offers to us in a relationship of faith. Luther, again, writes in the Large Catechism that the act of “[baptism] must be external so that it can be perceived and grasped by the senses and thus brought into the heart.” Baptism helps us to further understand the grace of God in ways that we can touch, see, and hear.

I bet most of us did not have the same baptismal moment as Jesus. I bet many of us do not even remember our baptisms, as we may have been infants or small children at the time. I don’t remember the actual day of my baptism, some almost 36 years ago in my father’s church in Pennsylvania. Sure, I have tokens of remembrance from the day – in fact my mom just sent me some pictures of the baptismal candle they lit that day, a white taper candle with a silver “A” for Alpha near the top, and a blue triangle of wax with a white dove super-imposed on it. Having grown up in the church as a Pastor’s kid, I remember many infant baptisms. Beyond the act of the baptism itself, it served as a way for the congregation to welcome a new member into the community. In particular, what sticks out in my mind is the presentation of the newly baptized babies to the congregation. I can remember my father (my pastor) addressing the congregation by saying “I present to you, your new brother or sister in Christ…” and the child’s name. My dad would walk up and down the aisles of the church with the little ones in tow, so that the congregation members could see and greet their new family member in the body of Christ. While I can’t remember this from my own baptism, being reminded of what probably happened at my baptism through observing others gave me a sense of how I also belonged to the community. We also might have photos, a baptismal certificate, or even just stories of the day we were baptized that remind us it happened if we were too young to remember. Beyond that day, those who sponsored us, or our parents, made promises to remind us of our baptism and what it means to be entered into the community of Christians.

Baptism comes in many different shapes and forms depending on the traditions we come from. As I already mentioned, some churches believe in infant baptism; that small children should be baptized and welcomed into the Christian community based on their parents’ or other adult sponsors promises to guide and involve them in the Church. Others of us may have come from traditions that wait for children to be older or even adults before they are able to make the choice to be baptized. Some of us may have been completely immersed in water, while others just had a sprinkling of a trickle of water placed on our forehead. Our baptism may have taken place inside, at a font or in a baptistry, or outside, in a body of water like a river or a lake (or in the case of Marsh Chapel, in an inflatable children’s pool behind the building!).

Despite the many forms of Christianity that exist, we all share in the importance of baptism as an act which brings members into our communities. In an ecumenical setting, such as our interdenominational worship here at Marsh Chapel, baptism serves as a way of binding us together in our faith. The things that mattered most about all of our baptisms, despite how they were performed, was the presence of water and the words spoken, baptizing us in the name of the triune God. It is the combination of these – the water and the words – that make baptism an act which differs from regular washing.  As Luther writes in response to the question “what is baptism?” in the Large Catechism “it is not simply plain water, but water placed in the setting of God’s Word and commandment and made holy by them.” It is out of the baptismal waters that we emerge as new people who belong to God.

We tend to think of baptism as a one-time event. In a way, it is. For most mainline Protestant denominations, only one baptism is acknowledged. Some traditions, like Methodism, Lutheranism, and Anglicanism, recognize baptism as a sacrament, a means of God’s grace. The other sacrament that these traditions acknowledge is that of holy communion or the lord’s supper. These two acts remind us of the relationship and connection we have with God. However, the act of baptism only needs to occur once because we live into the relationship we name with God throughout our lives. We might be reminded of our baptism when we worship, or even reaffirm our baptism later in life, but the covenant established with God through our baptism only needs to happen once for it to extend through our whole lives. God’s grace knows no bounds. Even if we rebel and reject God, God continues to extend grace to each of us. Through faith we acknowledge this connection. Our baptism as an act need only occur once in a lifetime, but our lives are forever formed and informed by our baptism.

Baptism affords us the opportunity to be welcomed into the community of Christians who profess the same faith as us through this ritual act. The sacraments of baptism and eucharist give us tangible sign of God’s presence in the world that we can hold on to and cling to in our moments of doubt and from which our faith can grow. It causes us to come together as a community to learn and grow with one another in our individual callings as children of God and as a community of faith. We may ask, what happens if we are baptized but do not have faith in God? Our Baptism is not depended on how well we live in to our faith, the only thing that baptism is dependent upon is the Word of God. This means that if we falter, if we turn away from God, if we fail to live out our callings as Christians, God is still there for us and loves us. Human beings have no control over the extension of God’s grace to us. Our relationship with God through our baptism is eternal; the grace of God is unearned and freely given.

So what does our baptism mean for us beyond the act of baptism itself? How do we live out our baptism in our lives every day? Remember how I said that the definition of epiphany is often referred to as an “aha” moment? What if we looked at the start of this new calendar year as an “aha” moment for what our baptism means in our lives? If we took the time to really think about what it means to be in relationship with God and how we can express that in our daily lives? Do you think we may come across some “aha” moments then?

To be honest, I did not come up with connecting the “aha-ness” of epiphany with how we live out our baptism. In fact, my church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America connected the act of baptism to this time of year in a quest to better understand the forms of discipleship we are called to undertake as Christians. They connect discipleship with the words used in the affirmation of baptism found in our worship liturgy. The following question is asked of those reaffirming their commitment through their baptism:

Do you intend to continue in the covenant made with you in holy baptism:

To live among God’s faithful people

To hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper

To proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed

To serve all people, following the example of Jesus,

And to strive for justice and peace in all the Earth?

Those reaffirming their baptism respond with “I do, and I ask God to help and guide me.”

 

Now, I may be biased (or more accurately, I am biased), but these statements of faith lay out ways in which we can hold ourselves responsible to the promises made in our covenant. To live, to hear, to proclaim, to serve, and to strive.

In thinking about the ways we live among God’s people, we may immediately turn to our worshipping community. Here at Marsh Chapel we are afforded with the opportunity to not only learn from members of our congregation in a shared denominational identity, but to learn from other members of our Christian community who may not come from our same tradition. Living among God’s people can also be understood as others we encounter who have come to help shape our faith or our understanding of God. We may recall a time when we felt inspired by another’s commitment to their faith, or encouragement in our own faith by a person or people within our faith community. Perhaps we find this connection through an invitation to participate in a worship service, or sing in the choir, or having a conversation after worship which leads to new ideas or new ways of thinking about the world. Living among God’s people continues to shape and form our lives in seeking out ways to deepen and enact our faith in the world.

We hear the word of God most often in a worship setting. Each week we listen as the readings and Gospel are read, and then interpreted for our lives by the preacher. We may be most acutely aware of our connection with the divine when we come together in worship, through hearing the scriptures, singing hymns, and praying together for the good of the whole world and our community. We also celebrate the Lord’s supper together as a community during worship. As I mentioned earlier, the sacrament of holy communion is another way we experience God’s grace with our senses – through hearing the Words of Institution, seeing the bread and the wine, touching and tasting it, we are reminded of God’s presence with us. Without this grounding connection, it may become easier for us to forget what our relationship with God really means to us. By worshipping with others we further the bonds of our community and come to understand the ways the scripture can shape our lives. We are fortified with the means of grace offered to us through communing with one another.

We also bring our faith outside of our worshipping community into the fullness of our lives. In proclaiming the good news of God in Christ, both in word and in deed, we demonstrate what it means to be a Christian. We might find this to be a harder facet of discipleship to take on because it requires us to be vulnerable in a larger society which may or may not share our values. It means saying things like, “As a Christian, I believe…” or “Jesus teaches us…” These may not be phrases we’re used to or comfortable with. But proclaiming our faith helps us to elucidate or explain who we are in relationship with God, which then deepens our faith. What does it mean to be a proclaimer of God’s faith in both word and deed for you? How can you share that information with others in a way that will inspire them to understand what your life of faith is like?

Being in service to others, as Jesus was in service to others, naturally evolves out of the proclamation of the good news of God in Christ because our actions in the world stem out of our faith in God. There are times, however, when this call to service creates problems for us. We are called to serve all others as Jesus exemplified for us. This means serving those who we may not agree with, those who we’d rather not acknowledge, those who are outside of our comfort zones. We must remember, though that serving others connects us with the divine through sharing God’s love explained through the gospel and shown in our actions. In service to others, we develop relationships that help strengthen our communities and create opportunities for learning and growing individually and as a community.

Finally, the last form of discipleship mentioned in the affirmation of baptism is to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. This may feel like a tall order. What does it mean to strive for justice and peace, and how can we hope to accomplish such lofty goals at a personal or even communal level? A good place to begin is in recognizing the injustices which exist in the world around us and the parts we might play, either directly or indirectly, in perpetuating them. We should also name injustices when we see them occurring and look for ways that we can prevent them from continuing. Injustice can happen at any scale, from local to global, and can affect individual people, whole communities, and even the entire Earth. We hear a lot about injustice in the world today and we may feel helpless in trying to address what seem like unsolvable problems. However, through finding our grounding in God and in our community and faith, we can find the hope that overcomes fear and let it guide us in our care and concern for the world.

Live, hear, proclaim, serve, and strive. These are all parts of our faith, grounded in our baptism, which can guide us forward in living out what it means to be a Christian in the world. In discussing baptism in the Large Catechism, Luther writes “Therefore let all Christians regard their baptism as the daily garment that they are to wear all the time…If we want to be Christians, we must practice the work that makes us Christian…” Luther reminds us that living our lives through our baptism cultivates our faith in God and recognizes the important relationship we share with God and the world. In this time after the epiphany, I invite you to share in examining what your baptism means to you and how you can more fully live it out. Ask God to help and guide you through this process. Perhaps you will surprise yourself with an “aha” moment.

–Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

Sunday
October 7

We Are One

By Marsh Chapel

Isaiah 2:2-4

Ephesians 4:1-6

John 17:15-23

The podcast audio for this sermon is currently unavailable. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord, Jesus Christ.

I don’t know about you, but the last few weeks have had some definite rollercoaster moments for me emotionally. The state of our country and the world in general continues to be in turmoil. Sometimes it feels as though we’re going to continue feeling stressed and anxious forever. But Every once and a while we still experience moments of joy, or at least we find moments of escape. I’ve recently been seeking solace from the stresses in my life through baking and escaping to foreign lands through cooking shows. While eating food is often seen as a comforting act for some, making or learning about how different dishes are made eases my anxiety. In particular, I recently watched a travel cooking show on Netflix, called Somebody Feed Phil. Unlike your normal cooking show where a trained chef demonstrates the complexities of a dish or highlights extremely cutting-edge ways of developing meals, Phil Rosenthal, the titular host of Somebody Feed Phil, takes more of an everyman approach to food and travel. With great enthusiasm he tells you about and shows you all of the great street foods and restaurants that he encounters in cities from Saigon to Lisbon. Although Phil is able to afford this kind of travel because of a successful career in television writing and production, his approach is to encourage the average person to go out and experience the world, because, as he stated in an interview “If people see a putz like me out there, they say ‘oh if he can go, I can go.’” Even if you don’t have the means to travel internationally, Phil encourages you to try new foods in your own city or town and to get to know people from different cultures through their food.

My favorite part of each episode, though, is when Phil has a meal with the family of a friend he knows from the region he is visiting. Frequently not all the guests at this meal speak English, so Phil is left making exaggerated reactions to the food he’s eating to convey his pleasure to his table mates. What I like about this part is what the host is trying to convey: that over a meal, we are all just people sharing in an experience together. In his episode in Saigon Phil quips “You know, you sit down and you eat with people that you’ve just met, and by the time you’re done eating you’re a little bit closer. That’s the idea, right?” It is out of the singular experience of sharing a meal that a community can grow. We can come to know our neighbors, even our global neighbors, just by sitting down with them over a meal because sharing food is an intimate act of trust and love.

Have you ever witnessed a community form? Have you seen the initial, trepidatious steps taken by people who don’t know each other easing into comfortable relationship with one another? Maybe you were a part of such a community-formation. Maybe it was in a church or through volunteering or even in your neighborhood. One minute, people are unsure, reserved, taking the temperature of the room, and the next there’s laughter and conversation. Not unlike the meals Phil shares across the world in different contexts with total strangers, there’s some uneasiness that eventually melts away into friendship. It develops out of patience, connection, and care.

            Every year, I get to observe communities form or take new shapes. One of the unique aspects of working in University Chaplaincy is that the communities formed here are fluid – always changing, especially from year to year. That’s because the student population changes – seniors graduate, and new first year students and transfer students arrive. New students with new identities, perspectives, and experiences to share. The chapel provides places and times for these new students to connect with one another and be in fellowship with on-going students at the university without the pressure of the classroom. It gives a space for spiritual connection, even if that connection is an unconscious one.

            This week I’ve been keenly aware of the presence of the divine I feel when students come together in fellowship. Something as simple as hearing two students in conversation who only met three weeks ago saying “I’ll text you and we can make a plan to go to ‘x’” outside of our normal fellowship activity. Or observing a student who was silent during the first meeting of the year volunteeing to help prepare and cook various parts of Malay Nasi Lemak, our meal for global dinner club this past week, all while interacting with a kitchen full of students. Students staying a half hour or even long after an event ends to continue chatting with each other while washing dishes. Something happens between weeks one and four of our weekly gathering that creates bonds between people, allowing them to engage each other on a deeper level. It is holding that other person in a place of respect with a sense of openness that allows for relationship to develop.

            It is in these points of connection, in relationship and community building, that God resides. We are reminded that Jesus often did his teaching over meals, bringing his community together from all parts of society. Jesus built community out of sharing food with others because of the intimacy it implied. By inviting those who were marginalized to eat with him, Jesus committed revolutionary acts outside the accepted norms of Jewish society. His notion of the need for relationship and community outweighed what the social and religious conventions of the times demanded. The importance of relational identity with others is so important to the Christian identity that Jesus demonstrates it for us time and time again. One of the commentaries I read for this week stated: “One cannot be a Christian by oneself.” Firstly, we are in relationship with God, always. We feel God’s love and grace in our lives; it is our foundation. We are also in relationship with other people in our societies and communities. As Christians we are called to love one another. John reminds us that God is love. Therefore, it seems only logical that it is in and through relationship that God can be experienced.

The history of Christianity centers around the need for community. Back to our roots in Judaism, it is the community of the Israelites that God leads out of slavery and into the promised land. The Israelite community was one based on being the “chosen people of God,” whom God liberates. The Christian community, however, has an expanded notion of inclusion. Through the actions and words of Jesus, we learn that all can be members of God’s community, especially those who are marginalized by the society. Despite national identity, economic status, or even gender, all are equal in the sight of God, as Paul tells us in the epistle to the Galatians. We are unified in our faith in Christ and God, forming the church in the world. But what is the Christian community really, and how are we supposed to be Christians in a globalized world?

While community is important to the core concepts of Christianity and Judaism (as well as many other religious traditions) interestingly, there is no word in Hebrew or Greek that is an equivalence to the English word for community. (Just as a pre-apology, I’m going to try my best with pronouncing biblical Hebrew and Greek in the next few sentences…bear with me). In the Hebrew Bible, the closest term is r’h (ree), which translates to brother or neighbor. In the New Testament, there’s the ekklesia (eck-klee-seea), the church or assembly, hagioi(hag-ee-oy) the community of saints/ or holy ones, the agapetoi (agapaytoy) the brothers/beloved ones, and the koinonia,those in the fellowship and sharing in Christ. When we talk about the Christian community and the values we share, we are most often referring to the koinonia, which speaks to the deep spiritual connection we recognize in each other through our union with Christ and God. Alternatively, there is another word used in the New Testament of as much value when we think about being in community with others. Allelon(Ah-lay-lon) is a relational term meaning “one another.” Primarily used in the epistles in the New Testament, “one another” is the term used to provide guidance on social relations within Christian communities. Christians living in community are called to bear one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2; Col. 3:13) and to build up one another (Rom 1:19; 1 Thess 5:11), and most often cited, to love one another. The community of Christian believers is not joined together by proximity, but by relationship through the holy spirit grounded in a shared belief in Christ Jesus. It is this faith in God through Christ through which the community experiences and expresses grace to one another. It is in this community that they are able to find solace, celebration, and hope.

Today we celebrate World Communion Sunday as a sign of our Christian unity. Started in 1933 by Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, World Communion Sunday grew from a local celebration of church unity and interdependence to a celebration recognized by the Federation of Christian Churches, now National Council of Churches, in 1940.  All around the world, Christians share in the Eucharist on this day as a reminder that our community extends far beyond the walls of our individual churches, beyond our city limits, beyond our countries of origin. We all bring different cultures and perspectives to our global community of Christians, but we all also share in the hope and salvation of Christ. Today is also a celebration of the ecumenicism built between Christian denominations over the past century. The ecumenical dialogue developed before and after World Communion Sunday makes the existence of a congregation like Marsh Chapel possible through the cooperation and affiliation of various Protestant denominations with each other.

In today’s scripture readings we hear about the importance and the beauty of being in community with others. The psalmist reminds us “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” The writer of Ephesians reminds us that we are called to each fulfill our own individual vocations while also seeking love and peace with our community, something that will join us together in the unity of God who is present in all. The passage from John’s gospel speaks to the significance of the relationship Jesus shares with both God and with us. Jesus, on the night that he is sharing his last meal with the disciples, turns to God and prays for the future of the community. Jesus knows what he is called to do in the next day, to give up his life, but instead of fearing what must be done, he instead focuses on his hopes for the community he will leave behind, asking God to continue to protect and sanctify them. It is through the close relationship Jesus shares with God and the community that he projects the unity of the Christian community into the future – “The glory that you have given me, I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” It is then our tasks as Christians to accept the love and grace given by God and employ it as justice and righteousness in the world we live in today.

Do not be mistaken, though, a call for Christian unity is not a call for uniformity which erases all differences and experiences. Instead, the Christian community is strengthened by the diversity present within it. It allows for the voices of the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the oppressed to be heard and valued in our global context, challenging us to create a society where everyone can seek to be liberated from oppression in its many forms. As Christianity has grown globally, it has taken new shapes and forms which speak to the varied contexts in which it has been established. As the global church shifts its center away from the Western dominance it once had, the mission of Christian visions of hope and love continue to be the central focus of the Church. While Sunday worship in Nigeria or Korea may look very different than our service here in Boston, Massachusetts, the grace and love of God sustains all of our congregations to meet our worldly challenges head on with a sense of optimism.

Through celebrating communion together today, we emphasize the presence of God in our lives through Christ. Sharing in the eucharist is a communal act. Even though we may individually receive our piece of bread and sip of wine, we share in the act of eating from the same loaves and drinking from the same cups, just as the disciples did with Jesus at the Last Supper. The acts of worshipping together may not always generate the same sort of connection that having a long meal with someone might – there’s little chance to converse or find moments of individual connection in our service – but it allows us to focus our attention on God’s presence in our lives. It is then out of this recognition of God’s presence in our lives that we are able to find deeper connection outside of worship times – before the service in the Narthex, after worship at coffee hour or our covered dish luncheon, during the week in a fellowship opportunity, or even just getting coffee with someone from the congregation. It is felt when we take the time to get to know our new neighbor who moved in across the street, welcome a newcomer to our monthly book club, or invite a friend to join us in a new context, like church, for example.

While the holy meal of communion fills us spiritually during this time today, it should also remind us that our church reaches far beyond the walls of this building. And no, I’m not just talking about the fact that this service is broadcasted on the radio. What I mean is that it is the people who participate in this service, whether sitting right here in the pews or listening half a world away, going out into the world to share the love and grace of God with others. Ours is a community that pushes back against the norms of what society may expect or demand from us; instead we focus on the justice and righteousness offered through God’s presence in our lives as a guiding force. Our community founded in God’s love helps us to see what is moral and what is amoral in our contexts, and then to move into action to challenge the status quo in the best way to serve our neighbors, whether they are Christian or not. Through upholding our values found in establishing just and unified communities, we come closer to the vision that Jesus holds for us when he prays for us before his death.

So as you leave from this place today, I urge you to continue building the relationships found within this community of Marsh Chapel, but also to bring the knowledge of God’s ever present grace and love into all of your relationships. As we enter into our Holy meal, our Holy Communion with one another, remember that we are one with God through Christ, imbued with the Holy Spirit. We are called to bear one another’s burdens, to build one another up, to love one another, extending God’s love, grace, and sense of justice into the wider world.

Amen.

 Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

 

Sunday
April 22

On Love and Sheep

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Click here to listen to the meditations only

How wonderful it is that Spring has finally decided to slowly show its face in Boston again! While some of us are still waiting for that perfect spring day of 65 degrees and sunshine, we cannot help but notice that in the course of the last week the grass has become a bit greener and the trees seem to have finally awoken from their winter slumber, putting forth buds and flowers. As I left my office yesterday afternoon, groups of students on blankets and playing frisbee dotted the BU Beach here behind the chapel – a sure sign that spring must be on its way. This year’s winter felt especially long, but the promise of warmer days and returning greenery has boosted my mood, and maybe yours as well.

            It’s amazing how deeply we feel our connection to the world around us, most of the time unconsciously. You may remember an especially rainy or cold day from the last few weeks when you found it difficult to get out of the warmth of your bed in the morning. Or how upon viewing a sunset with especially vibrant hues of pink, purple, and blue you stood amazed for a moment and the grandeur of the sky before you. Or maybe event sitting beside a lake or pond finding calm as you heard the shallow waves lap upon the shoreline. Deep within ourselves we find a rootedness with nature that can affect how we view the world, ourselves, and others. Indeed, we are in relationship with our environment.

            A few weeks ago, on one of those unseasonably cold Monday afternoons, a friend asked me to come to her class on Spiritual Companioning to talk with her students about nature and environmentalism as a spiritual practice. Prepared with a copy of Nature as Spiritual Practiceby Steven Chase, I invited the students to take part in an exercise entitled “Imprinted by Nature.” The activity encouraged them to reflect upon the location they grew up in – the natural surroundings, sounds, and smells and how they engaged with nature in that location. And then they were asked to think about how it compares to the area they live in now. After some time for reflection, most of the students recalled a great fondness for the area they grew up in. They described aspects of the natural world that calmed them, that had special memories attached to them, or that highlighted relationships with other people, such as grandparents or childhood friends. In contrast, when they thought of their current location, they often found it difficult to feel that same sense of connection to the world around them. The activity’s intent was to enable the students to realize the way that we have been shaped by the world around us. The truth is, the environments we grow up in create a sort of imprint on us when we are young that tacitly resides within each one of us, but that can be stirred up at any time just by taking a few moments to sit and reflect or by even encountering similar moments in our lives today.

            As a spiritual practice, the reflection on our ties with nature also connects us with the Divine. Theologians throughout the history of Christianity have commented on the ways in which nature facilitates our relationship with God. John Wesley encouraged Christians to experience the “immensity and magnificence, the power and wisdom of (Earth’s) Creator” by reading nature as a sacred text, a “mighty volume.” Martin Luther’s emphasis on the nature of God being both transcendent and immanent, “present in, through, and under all things” provides us with glimpses of the divine through our interaction with the world around us. Even Jonathan Edwards, the great Puritan theologian, declared that “Nature is God’s greatest evangelist.” We may also reflect on the words of the Psalmist, who in Psalm 23 depicts our encounter with God as a Shepherd who watches over us in green pastures with calm waters. Our full humanity can be expressed in connecting ourselves to the world around us and understanding that we, too, are a part of the divine creation of the earth.

            Our connections with nature and the divine also lead us to think about the ways we are in relationship with others in our communities. People, after all, are a part of the environment. We interact with each other in the context of our environments. Our environments impact how we are able to acquire food, where we can live, and even our mental health. We live in and associate ourselves with communities that determine what values we share and uphold, which can subsequently shape our attitude toward the environment. When there is a disconnect in any of these relationships, we can lose sight of the divine presence in the world, and injustice can become prevalent.

            Today, we celebrate Earth Day. This national observance began 48 years ago in 1970. Grassroots activists, including numerous college students, were concerned with the ways the environment’s quality was being degraded. In response, they hosted teach-ins, protests, and other demonstrations to get their message across – the kind of activism which has become more familiar to us over the past year. The result was a general push in society to pay more attention to the ways in which human action harms the planet. The feeling and meaning of Earth Day has continued to grow as the environmental challenges we face have changed over time. Thankfully, churches have increased their involvement in the day, becoming value-laden locations of exploring the ways humans need to see themselves as part of creation rather than as separate from it.

Over the past week, Marsh Chapel hosted a variety of events to encourage the student body and the surrounding community to think about the ways in which we relate to the Earth.  How human beings have harmed the earth, how we can adapt and try to heal some of the harm committed, and also see they affects that the harm has on members of our human community. It was a week of varied emotions. On Tuesday, I stood out on Marsh plaza with tiny terra cotta pots, paints, and tiny succulent plants for students to decorate their own succulent to take home – an event we called “Planting in the Spirit.” I was pleasantly surprised by the reactions of students upon finding out that they could take home their own tiny succulent for free – “You’re kidding me! They’re so cute! This is seriously bringing me so much joy right now!” (I may have removed some creative expletives the original speakers used). These grand positive reactions all from a tiny plant that they could use to green up their dorm or apartment. It gave them a sense of connection to the rest of creation just by having another living organism to care for and appreciate.

In contrast, last Sunday afternoon, we heard the concerns of students and community members alike as to whether Boston has entered into the emergency stage of global Climate Change at our conversation “Are We Climate Ready?.” It was fruitful exchange, but a sobering reminder that there is still a great amount of work we must do in order to ensure a sustainable future for our planet. Throughout the week’s events, we strove to foster conversations and actions for folks to think about the ways they have become disconnected from the world around them and how they can remedy that disconnection.

            But perhaps, in light of the theme Christian love found within today’s lectionary readings, the most meaningful of the events was a panel discussion on Thursday night. The panel was entitled “Is it Bougie to be Green?: The Gentrification of the Eco-Movement.” We co-hosted with it thEcology, the environmental student group at the School of Theology. For those of you unfamiliar with the slang term “bougie” it ultimately derives from the French word “bourgeousie” which became famous in the works of Karl Marx for identifying the upper class. Today, the term “bougie” is commonly used to mean “aspiring to be a higher class than one is.” The idea behind this panel was to bring together people of faith from different backgrounds to discuss how socioeconomic factors can hinder involvement in environmentalism, and to challenge the depiction of environmentalism as a white, middle-class issue or concern. Our panelists were all leaders within their faith communities who believe that environmental justice issues should be foundational and intersectional with other justice issues prevalent in our communities – economic justice, racial justice, gender equality, and others. The panelists spoke passionately about how their experiences within the local church and their communities had informed their understanding of environmental justice issues and how to handle them from a faith perspective. They cited that the mainstreaming or trend-setting aspects of environmentalism often make it difficult for some people, especially low-income people, to have access to environmental practices due to the influence of commodification. They pointed out how particular aspects of environmentalism require you to have a certain amount of expendable income in order to participate – in buying organic foods, having access to greenspaces where you live, or investing in sustainable energy. And most importantly, how low-income communities often feel the greatest impacts of environmental degradation but have little means to act against it and are frequently forgotten by mainstream activism.

            What became clear in this panel discussion was that environmentalism should not be co-opted by greenwashed idealism that neglects to recognize the many layers of injustice that exist due to the nature of our economic systems. While remembering our connection to the natural world absolutely has value in helping to shape our appreciation for it and can help us encounter the divine, our love and care for the Earth and everything in it cannot stop there. We have to be aware of the ways that climate change and other environmental issues are impacting communities, and how those communities are finding ways to respond within themselves. The reality is effects of climate change are already making climate refugees – people who are being displaced from their homes because of rising sea levels, extreme weather, and lack of access to potable water. And these people are disproportionately impoverished – living along coastlines, steep inclines, and flood plains. Or they reside in island nations who are not so slowly losing their home country as encroaching sea levels make it impossible for people to stay. Pacific Islanders, Alaskans, and others have already begun to feel these effects have to relocate. The impacts are not somewhere out in the future, but here already, today. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated at a meeting about climate change in Indonesia, “The issue of equity is crucial. Climate affects us all, but does not affect us all equally.”

            As Christians we must stand to express Christ’s love fully into the world. In 1 John we are reminded that our task in the world to emulate the love that Christ showed through “laying down his life for us.” The epistle echoes the sentiment of what the Good Shepherd does in John chapter 10 – “the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” He is not forced into this self-sacrifice, but instead, of his own volition, chooses to give up his life in order to protect his flock. His sacrifice is not for power or glory or payment, but for the good of the flock whom he knows and loves. A shepherd, as a leader of a flock, does not just care about himself or herself, but must be invested in the lives of all of the members of his/her flock. We, as Christians, as followers of Christ, are the sheep in this metaphor, but as sheep we learn from the shepherd how to be in the world.

 The writer of 1 John explicates the description of the role of the Christian further: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” The Christian cannot simply pay lip service to love, but instead must be willing to act out the words that he/she professes in order to fully enact God’s love in the world. God’s command to love one another is to love to the point of enabling the flourishing of other, even if it means making sacrifices for the self. We must first recognize the power that we hold which privileges us within society and then, instead of using that power over others, surrendering that power for the sake of others. We may be sheep, but we are sheep who are bathed in the love of God and expected to convey that love into the world.

In her recent book, Love in a Time of Climate Change, United Methodist elder, author, and activist Sharon Delgado reminds Christians that it is not only a sense of ethical responsibility that should drive us to take care of God’s creation, but also because we can see the value expressed in it. She states:

“A strong sense of the value of creation provides a foundation for actions to preserve, defend, and renew the natural world…creation has value for us because we love it and because through it we experience the divine. We protect and defend creation not because we should, but because we care. This sense of caring includes the human family and extends to all parts of creation.” (Delgado, 185)

We need to let our love of creation, grounded in those deep-rooted connections we have with our environment, guide us into respect for the Earth that leads to love and care. Delgado is right in pointing out that we must include both our human and our earth family in all senses of our caring. By enabling God’s love to flow through us, we can see hope in the face of daunting challenges.

            In light of these environmental challenges we now face, we must utilize our knowledge of God’s love to enact justice in the world. If we are fortunate to have the privilege of comfortable existence and can take on some of the more mainstream attitudes of environmental action, such as recycling, composting, or decreasing our carbon footprints, then we must also bring attention to the ways that communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities face the brunt of environmental injustices. We must find ways to be connected to these communities – to know our human neighbors as well as our environmental neighbors – in order to offer help in the most effective ways possible. We must speak truth to power when it comes to corporate practices that focus on making the maximum amount of profit at the expense of the livelihood of the most vulnerable within our society.  As we are led by the Good Shepherd who loves and comforts us, so too we must turn to the rest of our flock and find ways to express that love and care in the world around us.

As our antiphon stated today, “The Good Shepherd comes that we may have life and may have it abundantly.” Let us ensure that all have life abundantly.

Amen.

-Jessica H. Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

Sunday
January 28

“Have you come to destroy us?”

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Mark 1:21-28

Click here to listen to the meditations only

Good morning! What a pleasure and honor it is to share the good news of Jesus Christ with you this morning. I’d like to thank Dean Hill for asking me to preach today and my colleagues here at the chapel for their support and encouragement.

Today is the fourth Sunday after Epiphany. We are in the liminal time between the celebration of the birth of Christ, and Ash Wednesday. It’s not a memorable season like Advent, when we’re so excited to get to the birth of Christ that we sometimes jump ahead into its celebration a bit early. Or one of Lent, during which we fast, meditate, and prepare for the death and resurrection of Christ. No, the season after Epiphany, in some churches, particularly the Catholic Church, referred to as “Ordinary Time”, is when we hear the stories the growth and development of Jesus’ ministry. It’s when we learn of Jesus’ teachings, healings, and interactions with the people he encounters along the way. We use green paraments to highlight not only the growth and development of Jesus’ ministry, but our own spiritual growth and development through hearing and engaging the retelling of Jesus’ ministry on earth. We are then called to go out into the world and share that spiritual growth through the love of Christ that we share with all people.

This liturgical year, we grapple with Mark’s gospel to help us understand this period of Jesus life. Mark is the shortest gospel and believed by scholars to be the earliest retellings of the life of Jesus. The episodes within Mark’s scripture are much abbreviated, or “raw”, as one commentary I read put it. We get the facts and figures of Jesus’ work in the world, but not much flowery description. But in a way, Mark’s gospel is perfect for this Epiphanytide, this “Ordinary Time.” The gospel jumps right into the action of Jesus’ baptism and ministry. There is no description of the birth of Christ or the events leading up to it, like in Luke’s Gospel. Instead, we encounter the fully grown adult Jesus, baptized by John and announced as the Son and Beloved of God who then begins the work of God in the world. Mark is primarily concerned with conveying who Jesus is as the Holy One, the messiah, and that his authority comes from God. This is fully expressed through Jesus’ words and deeds.

In Mark’s gospel, we and the people Jesus encounters come to know who he is through his acts of teaching and healing. The focus is on Jesus’ authority in these situations. In today’s gospel reading, he is unknown to the people in the temple, but commands their attention through his words and actions. It is only the unclean spirit, or demon, or evil force which possesses the man in the synagogue who recognizes Jesus for who he is and the power that he can potentially wield. “Have you come to destroy us?” is one of the questions posed to Jesus by this evil force. The unclean spirit recognizes that Jesus possesses the authority of God, and questions how that power and authority will be used. Whether this is a sarcastic comment questioning the power of the Holy One, “Have you come to destroy us?” or a genuine inquiry of fear from the unclean spirit, “Have you come to destroy us?” we are not sure. But it gives us an interesting starting point for understanding the type of authority Jesus brings into the world and how our understanding of this authority can shape the ways we understand our Christian identity.

“Have YOU come to destroy us?”

First, let’s focus on the you in this question: “Have YOU come to destroy us?” The “you” obviously refers to Jesus. But Jesus is relatively unknown to the community he is within. The reaction of the people tells us so – he teaches them as one having authority, but not like the way that they had heard from the scribes. Jesus teaches in a NEW way. Not focusing on traditional interpretation of the Torah, as the scribes do, but by relying on the authority of God. The scripture does not share the words that Jesus spoke, but we know from other passages in Mark that his teachings challenge the systems that have led the participants and the leaders of the service into complacency.

We might be able to relate to this reliance on tradition in our own contexts – we become complacent not only to our styles of worship, but how we find ourselves interacting with the social structures that surround us in our everyday lives. “That’s just the way things are.” “This is the way it’s always been done.” But that blind trust can lead to problems like systemic injustices and oppression. What Mark demonstrates through this teaching is that Jesus points out the inadequacy of the teaching going on in the synagogue to reveal the true meaning of God’s relationship with people on Earth. We are called to seek out justice and righteousness, as the Psalmist today reminds us: God’s righteousness endures forever. God is gracious and merciful.

The people in the synagogue are astounded by Jesus’ teaching. From the immediate recognition of Jesus’ authority the story quickly transitions into the man with the unclean spirit getting up and shouting at Jesus. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Why has Jesus come to this synagogue to teach? How will Jesus’ teachings change the relationship between good and evil forces in the world?

Jesus’ teaching is founded in God, from whom his authority derives. His speech is powerful and authoritative because it speaks the truth. Jesus is a prophet, because he speaks the truth that is found in God and God’s will for the world. This authority is visible to those who hear him speak, as is obvious from last week’s gospel, in which Jesus promises Simon, Andrew, James, and John that he will make them “fishers of people” and they drop their nets and follow him. Jesus’ authority is unmistakable. But it isn’t what we might expect from the Messiah.

“Have you come to DESTROY us?”

It is established that Jesus is authoritative in his teaching, but do his actions match his words? Let us refer back to our guiding quote for this sermon, “Have you come to DESTROY us?” The word used by the unclean spirit is destroy in reference to how Jesus will use his power. Destruction is a violent word. It conjures images of razed lands, where no building is left standing. Or the complete obliteration of a person, a system. It might be what you would expect that the Holy One of God may bring to the Earth in order to control or subdue it. It might be what you would expect if it was your way with engaging with the world – to seek pain, violence and destruction instead of life-giving, healing, community. That is what the unclean spirits do, even to the point of causing self-destruction to their hosts, as described in Mark chapter 5.

We know from our own experiences that those with authority and power can slip into using that power for their own ends, to the point of injuring others. Without concern for the greater well-being, without that direct connection with the divine will for justice and righteousness, a person can create a great deal of damage by favoring certain groups of people with their power in ways that divide and amplify systems of oppression. Jesus has the power of God on his side, and it is precisely because of this connection with the divine that he utilizes that power to restore rather than destroy.

Jesus does not destroy. Yes, Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit telling it to “Be silent” and come out of the man, but there is no destruction. The spirit obeys, albeit putting up a fight on its way out, but it leaves. Jesus doesn’t destroy the spirit – where it goes to, we don’t know. But additionally, he doesn’t destroy the unclean spirit’s host, the man. Instead he restores the man to health. He “heals” the man. Jesus does not seek to obtain power for himself in this situation, as the evil forces might do. He serves humanity instead, restoring the man to his full humanity.

Jesus is a teacher and healer during his ministry; not someone who destroys. Can you imagine describing Jesus as a teacher and destroyer? It just doesn’t seem to fit the conception we have of him. He commands power over those things which are damaging to both the individual body and the communal body. He demonstrates that his authority can overcome the unclean spirits, the powers of evil, through the restoration of the person. We may extend this metaphor to say that this person, who is possessed by the unclean spirit, could also be ostracized from his community if his behavior were to continue. We know as much from the story of the man possessed by the legion of unclean spirits in Mark chapter 5 who is physically removed from the community. Jesus restores both the man in the temple and the man exiled to their communities. And in both instances the communities are amazed.

Jesus has power and authority, but he uses in a way that nonviolently transforms. As the Spider Man movies have taught us “With great power comes great responsibility.” Or as saint Luke states in Chapter 12, verse 48, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” Jesus is tasked with the greatest power and responsibility. In order to do the work of God on Earth, he must use his power and authority in a way that restores the earthly community to one of support, love, and inclusion.

“Have you come to destroy US?”

The final factor in this question posed by the unclean spirit is, who is “us”? Up to now, I have been talking about an unclean spirit. Suddenly it is multiplied by the spirit itself – “us.” We may understand this “us” as all evil forces, as those things which prevent flourishing in the world. If we read this passage with a historical critical lens, we may side with commentators who situate the Jewish community in Capernaum as a community under the Roman Empire – perhaps then the “us” are the imperialists who continue to oppress those in their community. Or it may be that this unclean spirit is an actual pre-scientific understanding of what a health concern looked like. But one thing is clear – the forces that recognize Jesus know who he is and recognize his potential power when no one else can.

Today we may see the “us” as the powerful forces we encounter in our lives that keep us from having a full relationship with the divine and from completely expressing God’s love to ourselves and others. These forces may be spiritual, biological, societal, or political. They may make us feel powerless and out of control, just as the man who is possessed appears to be. We may feel like there is no way of overcoming them or destroying them, as it were.

But there is hope. Because Jesus displays that there is the possibility of healing and hope in the face of such challenges. By bringing us a new way that is full of love and care for others, the healing and restoration of our communities is a possibility. As Paul reminds the church in Corinth, it is love that “builds up.” Love builds up our relationships with each other, and it also builds up our relationship with God. We may not be able to destroy the evil that exists in the world, but we are capable of taking away its authority and power over our lives.

Moving toward the future

The gospel for this week reminds us of the great acts of Jesus but also should spark us into action. Jesus, after all, was a radical. And by radical, I mean the definition which comes out of the Latin root, radix, which literally means root. Jesus comes to fundamentally change the way we understand our relationship with God and with each other. His new way of teaching is simplified and relies less on tradition and more on the authentic word of God found within the scriptures. He astounds and amazes the people by using his authority both to teach and to heal and restore. But we must remember that not everyone accepted Jesus’ teachings or his acts of healing as coming from God. He encounters these challenges again and again throughout the gospel of Mark, eventually leading to his own death. He challenges the status quo in a new, nonviolent, but revolutionary way that scares those accustomed to the old ways.

I imagine people’s reactions to Jesus’ teaching to be like the first time I read James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation. As a first year Master’s level student, it destabilized me. It made me question everything I thought I knew about Christianity and emphasized the inherent privilege I possess as someone who is white. It highlighted the systems of oppression found within American society and particularly within the field of theology, which had been primarily developed by Western, white perspectives up until the writing of this book. It felt foreign to me, a challenge to my what I then thought were my brilliant theological ideas, and I just didn’t get it. And, like the unclean spirit in this passage, my reaction, at first, was to reject it. Because it didn’t speak to me. Because it scared me. Because I felt threatened by it. But that kind of teaching is exactly what I needed to grow, to at least try to better understand the lives of those who are oppressed by society. It made me look at the scriptures in a new way. It opened up avenues of many different and varied theological perspectives arising out of theologies of liberation that help shape my personal theological and ethical ideas today. The challenge was a good thing because it opened my eyes to new ways of being in the world. New ways that I am by no means an expert at, but new ways that I can continue to grow into.

There are many times in our lives when I’m sure we wish that Jesus would show up and get rid of the evil and oppressive forces in our lives. That it would be as easy as a command uttered for negative forces to leave us. But it’s not. At least it isn’t for us (it may still be for Jesus himself). We can’t make our personal demons or our societal demons leave us by willing them to go away. But what we can do is recognize them and engage ourselves to reform them. In order to do this properly, however, we must first be able to recognize those forces which have taken priority for us that are in conflict with God’s will. If we can acknowledge the demons then we can take their power away. If we ignore them and pretend they aren’t there, then we allow them to still have power over us. White supremacy, sexism, homophobia, addiction, and hate as well as many other insidious social ills surround us. Our job is to name them for what they are and systematically dismantle the influence they have in our collective lives. This is by no means any easy or pleasant job, but one that speaks to the justice and righteousness found in God.

We are called to be purveyors of Christ’s love in the world. If we recognize Jesus’ authority and how he uses it to bring about change, we can learn from it. Authority and the power that comes with it can easily be mismanaged and improperly used for self-aggrandizement. Jesus is our example – he possesses God’s authority, but uses that authority to serve others. Our power also comes in serving others, as Martin Luther said, being “little Christs” for our neighbors. Through service of others, learning from others, and being in community we can imagine a better future for ourselves. In this Season after Epiphany, this “Ordinary Time,” let us continue to grow in spirit and love.

“Have you come to destroy us?” No, Jesus has come to restore us.

Amen.

-Jessica Ann Hittinger Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

 

 

Sunday
October 1

Sharing in the Spirit

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

Click here to listen to the meditations only

Good morning! It is an honor to be sharing the Word with you from the pulpit of Marsh Chapel again! Thank you to Dean Hill for this opportunity and to my colleagues here at Marsh Chapel for their support in organizing today’s worship service – especially our anthems from the choir for the day.

I want to invite you to take a moment to think about the best dinner you’ve ever attended. I don’t mean necessarily the meal that you ate – maybe that’s a part of it – but the best dinner experience you’ve had. I’m almost sure that this dining experience you’re remembering right now is with at least one other person…maybe a whole table full of people. How did you feel? What did you talk about? Maybe your dinner was a part of a celebration, for a birthday or an anniversary. Maybe it was at a family holiday gathering. Maybe it was with friends out at a restaurant. Maybe it was a home-cooked meal made by a family member. There is something about that dinner that sticks with you, a connection made, an emotion felt, an experience that cannot be forgotten.

Every Tuesday night in this building, something wonderful and amazing happens. Onions are chopped, sometimes with tears, dough is kneaded and shaped, chickpeas ground, tomatoes sliced, garlic sautéed. Simple ingredients are turned into a meal. And while all of this is happening, people gather. Some of us are in the kitchen, learning how to make whatever dish is on the menu that night. Some stand just inside or outside the doorway, carrying on conversation with those who are cooking, and others gather just down the hall conversing about the week so far or playing the occasional game of Jenga. We all come from different backgrounds – some of us from neighboring towns in Massachusetts, some from the South or the West, some from China, or Mexico, or India, or Nigeria. The places we know as “home” might differ, but in our interactions we create a new place of belonging for ourselves.

Global Dinner Club has grown in the last two years as an opportunity for hospitality and understanding across cultural differences as members of the Boston University community come together to share a meal and conversation. Most students, when they first come, ask the same question: “You do this every week? For free?” Yes, a home-cooked meal, prepared with care and attention by people who may or may not know each other all with the goal of sharing together. And sometimes those new people jump right in, offering to chop or slice, stir or roll, and sometimes they hold off for a week or two, observing what goes on before feeling confident and comfortable enough to fully participate. And that’s okay too – no one is ever told they must help or participate, but we hope they come around to it sooner or later.

Tuesday nights are wonderful and amazing because they are grounded in love. Every person who attends wants to be in community with others – even if they’ve had a hard day. Global Dinner Club serves as a release from coursework and other concerns, allowing space to only focus on cooking and enjoying food with each other for a few hours.

What is also amazing about Global Dinner Club is that it is antithetical to everything that the world wants me to believe about life in the United States at the current moment. It is people from all different backgrounds and varying ages coming together only with the agenda of eating and getting to know each other. Attendees find points of commonality – for instance, a favorite television show or a class taken – and from there the conversation grows. Or they find points of difference – for example, idioms that are commonplace in American English need further explanation to make sense for non-native English speakers. As an aside, this week I realized how Western the term “damsel in distress” is, and how hard it is to explain if you didn’t grow up with fairy tales about castles and knights and dragons. While there are barriers we have to overcome in understanding each other sometimes, and while there are many possible outside forces that prevent us from experiencing the joy of learning from others and growing in friendship, it is still possible. It gives me hope at a time when so much of our world seems to be in chaos. It reminds me that love is stronger than hate.

Consuming food for nourishment is a basic need for all human beings, but it becomes something so much more because it is shared. Eating together enables us to get to know one another. It is an intimate act. When I asked you to envision the best dinner you’d ever attended, I bet it brought back particular memories about whom you shared it with and the emotions you felt during that time. Sharing a meal unifies those gathered around a table through telling stories, revealing oneself enough to find common ground, and leaving behind quarrels or divisions to enjoy a meal together. We may, at one time or another, have sat at a table with someone who sees the world differently than us, but have been able to learn and grow from interacting with them over a meal. It is not the act of eating alone that brings us together, but the act of sharing in the experience of a meal – of conversation and eating, words and action – that enable us to grow into community.

In the lesson we heard this morning from Philippians, Paul urges the community of Christians in Philipi that they must be unified. That they mustn’t let in-fighting and quarreling divide them. They must act as servants to one another, acting in love toward one another. In order to “share in the Spirit” they must be willing to be open and humble as Christ-followers. Anticipating the needs of the other and looking toward the interests of the other before thinking of one’s self interests. Living in community with others is difficult, and Paul knows this, but he emphasizes that one of the ways that the community in Phillipi can come together is to let God be front and center in their minds as they go about interacting with one another, serving each other’s needs as God acts through them to do so.

A meal is a great place to put this into practice – not only are we able to meet the physical needs of others by providing the sustenance offered through food, but we are able to provide the emotional and spiritual support of others through listening and offering parts of our own journeys with them. Extending hospitality to others is a part of our Christian heritage, and a meal can be just that for those searching for it.

Sharing a meal is a sacred act. Today we will share in a meal together in Holy Communion. Other religious traditions also share sacred meals. Every Friday our Jewish friends celebrate Shabbat.  At the end of each fasting day during Ramadan, our Muslim brothers and sisters break their fast by sharing in iftar, and culminate their month-long fasting with an Eid al-Fitr dinner. In most worship practices within Hinduism, worshipers consume the prasad, the food which is first offered and then ultimately blessed by deities. Consuming food, especially together, is an important, sacred activity within many religious traditions other than our own.

Today, in a few moments, we will share in a particularly special and unifying meal in our worship service. The first Sunday of the month is always Communion Sunday here at Marsh Chapel. But today is an even more special day – today we celebrate World Communion Sunday. This first Sunday in October is celebrated throughout the Christian world as a time when we intentionally recognize how all Christians are connected to one another through sharing in the sacred meal of Holy Communion. Created in the early 20th century by the Presbyterian church, the importance and popularity of World Communion Sunday grew during World War II, when the world appeared to be tearing itself apart with conflicts on many fronts. Christian ecumenicism, bringing together many of the Mainline Protestant traditions and some of the orthodox traditions, helped people find points of connection rather than being defined by the theological traditions that separated their individual Christian denominations.  It resulted in the development of Christian-led reconciliation work in the face of on-going conflict that continues to this day through organizations like the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches. Today, World Communion Sunday offers us a time to see how the Body of Christ extends across the globe in many shapes and forms as a unified whole. While communing with individuals who claim different denominational affinities, or none at all, is not out of the ordinary for us here at Marsh Chapel, today we affirm the call to come together as one in this sacred meal, open to all who wish to partake.

Our ritual of Holy Communion is not a full meal. At most, we usually get a bite of bread and a sip of wine or grape juice. But it stands for a bigger meal with a greater meaning for us. In preparation for today’s sermon, I read Lutheran theologian and historian Martin Marty’s The Lord’s Supper. It is a small book and easy to read, designed for the everyday person – I highly suggest it if you’re looking to learn more about how and why we do the things we do during Communion. In it, Marty reminds the reader that we must keep in mind the greater context of what we are doing through the act of communion.  He states: “The Lord’s Supper is often called “Holy Communion,” a coming-together of bread with body, wine with blood, God with creatures, and believers with one another. To realize through Communion that one is a social human being who shares common miseries and joys is a benefit of this meal. It serves to lift a person beyond mere “me-ness.” While we may come to church services looking to find something that will resonate with us individually, usually through a sermon or the prayers, we must also be reminded that the purpose of worship, and specifically communion, is to bring us together as a “we.” Not just as a “we” of people in one place, but a “we” of connection with all others, including God and the creation. Communion brings us back in touch with the earth, to see the way God works through the world.

Just like a regular meal we might have on a daily basis, Communion also consists of words and actions. And in order to be communion, it must have both to. In the Small Catechism, the instruction booklet of faith for Lutherans, Martin Luther explains that communion is more than just eating and drinking. It is the combination of words shared and the action of eating and drinking that constitute the sacred act of grace and forgiveness which makes Holy Communion a sacrament rather than just another meal. In the words spoken by Jesus that we repeat during Holy Communion, and following his actions with the disciples, we are a part of the sacrament. Jesus said “Take and eat, this is my body, given for you.” “Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” When we offer and receive, sharing these holy words, we are a part of the experience of the divine and are brought together as members of God’s holy family.

The meal we share in communion helps to feed our souls by offering us the grace of the divine and encouraging us to let that grace work through us in service of creating a more just and loving world. In coming together as a congregation, we open ourselves up to bear the burdens and serve the interests of others through sharing in the Spirit with one another. Our task is to continue extending the grace offered to us through our experience within Holy Communion by loving our neighbors and showing care for them. One way we may show care is offering a meal, or a place to rest to those who need it. Or we might gather supplies for those experiencing loss, like our community-minded service group MOVE is doing for people in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean. If the intentions of our actions are grounded in faith, then we do much more than meet the physical needs of others. We also extend God’s love into the world.

We come together in worship to hear the Gospel, bear each other’s troubles, ask for forgiveness, receive God’s grace, and go out into the world living our lives being carried forward by the mind of Christ. Let us look for the ways in which we can all share in the Spirit with others, especially those who are marginalized or oppressed, creating a community of understanding and support, outside of this physical space and time. Let God work through us to bring forth justice and reconciliation in the world. Let us simply look up from our plates across the table to those sitting around us and share pieces of ourselves with others along with our meal. Amen.

-Jessica Ann Hittinger Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students