Archive for the ‘Guest Preachers’ Category

Sunday
May 24

A Shared Future

By Marsh Chapel

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Genesis 4:3-10

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A reading from Genesis chapter 4, verses 3-10,

3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

8 Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!

If you look back through the last few decades, you might notice that there has been an ongoing rise of dystopian and post-apocalyptic works. The Hunger Games, The Walking Dead, The Handmaid’s Tale, Planet of the Apes, and dozens of other works have capture the attentions of readers and viewers. All of these works say something about the world in which we live. These works tend to re-imagine society in light of suffering or offer a restructuring of life. The power of good dystopian literature is its connection to reality and the way it forces the reader to reconsider aspects of life. I cannot say for certain what the affinity between these works and the current zeitgeist is, but the correlation is significant.

One particular dystopian novel has been especially on my mind lately, The Giver. The Giver is a 1993 novel by Lois Lowry, which was turned into a movie in 2014. The novel takes place in a society designed to function without pain, war, or fear. For all intents and purposes, the society seems to be a utopian one at first; however, throughout the book the reader learns the costs of creating the society. In order to achieve the societal ideals, the community enforces strict uniformity toward utilitarian purposes. Individuals have to conform to societal norms. The ability to choose or make the meaningful decisions in life is taken away from the individual and placed into the hands of a council. People are assigned to families and jobs. The society is without many emotions like love. People cannot see the color of the sky, ground, or anything else. Those who are not useful are euthanized. What appeared to be utopian was dystopian.

One of the ways in which the society was able to enforce uniformity is that considerable amounts of the past have been intentionally forgotten. This provides a powerful formative force. Societies are shaped by what they remember and forget so, the ability to shape a society based on what it remembers and forgets is a profound power. We go through a similar formative process every day, even when we are not aware of it. We are shaped by the stories told, events remembered and we are shaped by the untold stories and events forgotten. While there is no council with the ability to take away our memories, there is an ongoing struggle for whose memories and stories are true and matter.

Turn with me to the story of Cain and Abel where two brothers made an offering to God. The planter Cain, gave an offering from the fruit of the ground and Abel, the herdsman from his flock. Each made gifts to God from their work. For some reason, Abel’s sacrifice pleased God, and Cain’s did not. Theologians have argued for centuries about why Abel’s sacrifice was more pleasing. The author of Hebrews indicated that faith had something to do with it. Hebrews 11:4 says “By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.” The faith aspect reminds us that inward dispositions impact outward actions. Augustine thought similarity when he argued that the reception of the offerings must have correlated with the intentions of the giver. In other words, Augustine believed that Abel’s heart was in the right place and Cain’s was not. Whatever the initial reason, it is clear that God recognized the consequences of favoring one brother’s offering over the others. So God warned Cain that he must not succumb to the anger in his heart. Cain was given a warning and a chance to overcome unjust anger against his brother. Cain was given the chance to recognize that blessings from God to others are not a cause of jealousy. But Cain lured his brother into a field and attacked him. One person killed another, brother killed brother.

After Cain killed Abel, God questioned him about Abel’s whereabouts. Because Cain was alive, he could tell the story and retorted, “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper.” Cain counted on the past being the past and dead bodies being silent. What Cain did not remember is that God has a way of knowing. God said to Cain “Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” The passage from Hebrews also said that Abel still speaks by faith even though he is dead. The blood of Abel cried out to God. Abel’s cry was a song of sorrow. The ground was marred by blood and became the location of this song of sorrow. Creation recognized the injustice that sounded out from the marred soil. Clearly, Cain did not want to hear this song of sorrow or take responsibility for the direct role he played in its creation. God did not stand for his actions and ignorance. In fact, God says listen to Cain. Cain is directed to listen to God and the song of sorrow rising from his brother’s body in the ground. God directed him to listen to what God can hear from what remains of Abel.

Listening here is a way of remembering. God does not allow Cain to ignore the travesty he committed against his brother to go unaccounted for through verbal dexterity. A person is dead. Cain’s brother is dead. The world will never be the same. God does not allow the song of sorrow to go unheard.

If we were to venture out to listen for voices in the soil, what would we hear? What are the songs of sorrow crying out to God for justice? Can you hear the blood and sweat of a black runner from Georgia, the tears of abused women, the gasps of soldiers waking up from all too real dreams, and the coughs of the poor who died without adequate health care coming from polluted ground? If you cannot hear these songs, it does not mean that they do not exist, they are there and God says listen. If you cannot hear them, then it is time to ask why. What is separating you from the laments of the suffering?

Perhaps we do not hear the songs because we do not want to. We do not want to admit culpability or witness any more pain and suffering. It is also hard to hear them when listening feels like swimming upstream. It’s hard to hear when the mainstream pulls us away. There are songs and memories that mainstream society is trying so desperately to drown out and it is beyond time to ask why. It is time to listen and remember the truth told from the ground and not those standing over the bodies. Bodies will continue to fall and cry until we listen.

In the dystopian world of The Giver, the society was able to select what memories would shape the community. The council controlled the stories told and events remembered. Rather than remember all the hurt and destruction that humanity inflicted, the society designated one person to be the keeper of memories. The keeper of memories remembered the good and the bad. In this way, the past could be the past as people went through life ignorant of much of what came before. But trying to leave the past in the past brought about serious consequences. The society bent or perhaps even broke truth in the way it understood it’s past and present. The community rested on unstable ground as the songs of sorrow were drowned out. Without the ability to remember, the community could not listen. Memories are not purely passive traces of events, they are poignantly active markers of life. Memories have meaning and when they are taken away, forgotten, or denied life is impacted. The fabric of the world is altered when memories are snuffed out.

The protagonist of The Giver Jonas, as the new keeper of memories, was faced with a difficult choice, does he perpetuate the communal myths by keeping all of the society’s memories to himself, or does he expose the duplicitous ground the community uneasily rests upon? You can read the book to see what Jonas did but remember that part of the power of good dystopian literature is its capacity to capture pertinent aspects of life. In other words, if you read the book, you might just have to ask yourself the same question, can you accept the communal myths and the duplicitous ground that society rests upon when it tries to forget its past?

You can learn a lot about a society by looking at what they choose to remember. Alternatively, you can uncover much by pondering what would rather be forgotten. The Giver illustrates that there are dire repercussions when societies and communities refuse to remember certain things. Selective memory may make those in control of the narrative feel better but the truth cannot be hidden. The truth cannot be dismissed so casually. Memories and lingering effects have a way of surfacing and demand to be heard. The voices of the past cry out.

Beyond hearing the songs of sorrow that stem from injustices, the temptation to forget, ignore, and perpetuate in the present is fueled by radical individualism. This individualism says it was not my hand that struck the brother or sister; therefore, I do not have to listen. I do not live in Georgia. I do not own a gun. I smile at people who do not look like me when I walk by them. I donate money to organizations that make a difference. If I do all of this, God, surely I am not responsible for the bodies in the ground? I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?  Individualism focuses on the self that is standing and refuses to see or hear the body on the ground. Individualism tries to forget that we are part of a communal society, whether we feel like it or not. It teaches us that we are isolated islands moving through a world that exists for us. This excuses the suffering or pain of others as inevitable or caused by moral deficiencies. The “me” mindset focuses on the self while viewing other people as minor characters in our story. This could not be further from the truth though. We exist in an interconnected interdependent world. We live in a shared world where the Holy Spirit fills the space that is between us.

Our lives and identities are forever changed when we come into contact with each other. For good or for ill, we impact those around us. Continental philosopher Paul Ricoeur said it this way: “in our experience the life history of each of us is caught up in the histories of others. Whole sections of my life are part of the life history of others—of my parents, my friends, my companions in work and in leisure.”[1] To answer the ancient question from Genesis, YES you are your brother’s keeper, and you are your sister’s keeper, your friend’s keeper, your annoying person in the office keeper, yes, you are even your enemies’ keeper. There is no one for whom you are not a keeper. That doesn’t mean you must continue to engage with people who have hurt and abused you. It doesn’t mean you cannot walk away from people who do not keep you but you are a keeper. For today, this places the obligation to listen to songs of sorrow and remember. To be a keeper for others recognizes that we share life, the world, and God with one another.

I doubt that the author of The Giver had Genesis in mind when she wrote about the keeper of memories but maybe being a keeper also means holding onto each other’s stories with trust and care. Maybe it means listening deeply to those around us and honoring the ways in which we are connected, even if these connections are not visible. In The Giver, the keeper of memories is tasked with remembering on behalf of the community for the good of all. But we do not live in a world where just one person is the keeper of memories. We all are and because we are all keepers, we are partners in the hard work of remembering. Ricoeur says that we are entangled with one another and this entanglement should result in mutual care and concern for each other. Your life is directly shaped by the people surrounding you. You impact the people around you. This entanglement challenges notions radical individualism because of the way life is inherently connected. On the one hand, this means the present is shaped by mutuality. On the other hand, it means that the past and memory do not belong to any particular individual or even a particular community. This is not to say that we are bound by the past or memories in a fatalistic manner; however, they are always present even when we are not aware. History is shared and there is an ethical responsibility to the past when forgetting and remembering. How we remember and what we remember must be measured because of the way in which they shape the present and the future.

If you travel around any city, you will see statues, plaques, and monuments. These represent events, people, or times that are memorialized. There are times we observe special days in the year. These are formative reminders of what has been. Tomorrow is Memorial Day. On this day, we remember those who gave their lives in military service on behalf of the United States. Tomorrow we remember that war is not free and that the costs of war extend far beyond what the U.S. treasury department can print. Memorial Day is a day of remembering.  But it is also a challenging day. How do we honor the good and remember the injustices? How do we live in the tensions and ambiguities of life that are always more complex than a simple good/bad dichotomy. How do we remember more fully and truthfully?

We live in a shared world. This means that until there is freedom for all, there can never be freedom for some. Freedom cannot be achieved for a few on the backs of the many. While songs of sorrow are the dirge of the land, the land is not a place freedom. Recognizing this means reclaiming and remembering aspects of the past. It necessities being keepers for one another. We are keepers of the voices of the past. We are keepers of voices in the present. Yet, there is another important way that we are keepers. We are keepers of each other’s futures. We not only live in a shared world but we must move toward a shared future. The future is not mine, it is not yours, and it is ours. God invites you to work as a keeper toward a shared future for everyone. This invitation is hard but it is good news for everyone. The shared future is not wishful thinking it is God’s promise.

[1] Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1992, 161.

-The Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens

Ph.D. Student in Practical Theology: Homiletics

Boston University School of Theology

Sunday
February 23

The Transfiguration

By Marsh Chapel

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Exodus 24:12-18

2 Peter 1:16-21

Matthew 17:1-9

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The text of this sermon is currently unavailable but will be posted soon. We appreciate your patience.

-Mr. William Edward Cordts

Sunday
June 30

Redemptive Discontent

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 4:14-21

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A text copy of this sermon is not available.

-Dr. Robert Franklin, James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor of Moral Leadership, Emory University and President Emeritus, Morehouse College

Sunday
June 23

Concerning Moral Leadership

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 8:26-39

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-Dr. Robert Franklin, James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor of Moral Leadership, Emory University and President Emeritus, Morehouse College

Sunday
October 14

A Service in Remembrance of the Life and Legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Marsh Chapel

Sunday
September 23

It’s All About Peace

By Marsh Chapel

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James 3:13-4:3; 7-8a

Mark 9:30-37

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

-The Rev. Dr. Lawrence Edward Carter, Sr., Dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel and Professor of Religion, Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA

Sunday
August 26

A Homily by The Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43

Ephesians 6:10-20

John 6:56-69

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About 18 months ago, I stood in the trauma room of a busy Los Angeles hospital. For probably the 7thor 8thtime my phone went off alerting me that there was an emergency. I walked in and saw the usual signs of a gang shooting. This was the first night I met Mark, whose name is not really Mark. Mark had been shot twice, looked to be about 15, and was covered in tattoos. As I searched for identifying gang symbols, I came across a tattoo of the rosary on the underside of his forearm. The mixture of religious and gang symbols was not uncommon. After speaking and saying a prayer, he went off to surgery. A few visits, and days later, the DCFS worker informed the hospital that they were out of placement options. Child protective services had nowhere for Mark to go when he was discharged, so they asked us to keep him while they “worked something out.” In the ensuing months, Mark and I had countless conversations.

He openly shared about his life and place in the gang, including the crimes he committed on the streets and even the strategies for not getting caught. Marks whole family belonged to different gangs. A dangerous fact and a harsh environment. When I asked Mark what he wanted to be as a kid he told me, “I never had a choice. The only choice I ever got in life was which gang I was going to choose.”

Over the course of the months, we talked a lot about faith and spirituality. Mark considered himself spiritual but not religious, as so many young people do. He shared how the rosary was a source of comfort and protection for him, which is why it was tattooed on his arm. He would continually ask me for rosaries because he would give them out to his friends and fellow gang members. In fact, the night he was shot, he had given his rosary to a friend, a fact that only reinforced his quasi-magical, or perhaps mystical, view that the rosary was a source of God’s protection.  

As we talked, I discovered that Mark was angry with God. When he was thirteen, his grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. He stopped going to school to care for her and prayed every day for her healing. As far as I could tell, she was the only family member that ever cared for Mark, so when she died he lost the most important person in his life. He stopped going to Mass, for all intents and purposes he stopped going to school, and he was “adopted” by a local gang that he would later join. Mark was angry with God for the death of his grandmother. He felt pushed away, belief and trust were too hard, and so Mark walked away. He told me of the bargains he made with God if only God would save her. Good grades, a clean life, perhaps even serving the Church. But they did not work.

I imagine there are those of us who have made similar bargains to no avail. When life and faith do not go the way we plan or pray, it is easy to become frustrated. To be angry. Perhaps even to lose hope. Being angry, mad, sad, sorrowful, full of lament these are all normal feelings and expressions that occur as a natural part of life. Even losing hope can be natural; yet, the stormy waters of despair cut to the core. The loss of hope comes with a side effect of paralysis. Time slows and despair stretches. It is so insidious for its capacity to make people feel trapped. A loss of hope can feel like a loss of life itself.

In these times, one can feel that God has turned God’s face away. It can feel like, either God does not hear prayer or God is choosing not to answer. Sometimes it just feels like we are being pushed away. It can be hard to reconcile our image of God as all loving with feeling pushed away. Our Gospel reading today is somewhat puzzling in a similar vein. In these past few weeks, we have traveled through John chapter six where Jesus consistently calls himself the bread of life and draws the people to him. He fed the 5000 men and countless woman and children, taught from the mountainside, had to avoid being made a king, calmed the sea, and walked on water.

In fact, when Jesus tried to get away from the crowd by traveling to the other side of the sea, the people followed him. He had the crowds following him and eating out of his hands. It is here that Jesus delves into what is known as the bread of life discourse. And at first, the people want the bread that Jesus is offerings. He tells them about the life that it provides and they ask for it. They seem desperate for it and really, who wouldn’t be desperate for bread that provides life and hope. At first, they are willing to believe, based on the wonderful signs that Jesus has done. They believe that he is able to provide them with this living bread from heaven.

Yet, Jesus goes on. He not only has the audacity to say that he is the living bread sent from heaven but also that God is his Father. Jesus calls himself the bread of life from Heaven and reveals his deep and personal connection to the Father. This claim of a special relationship is a cause of complaining, but it does not yet cause the people to walk away. The desperate need for life and hope is still more potent, at least for a time.

Perhaps Jesus was not well versed in the church growth literature of the time. Because it is at this point, a potential climax for his ministry, that he seems to drive the crowds away. The signs, the miracles, and the teaching have brought the people. All is going well for the fledgling community and hope is so much easier to maintain when things are going well. Yet, the tide turns and in the midst of the grumblings, Jesus pushes harder.

 He goes on to use cannibalistic terms, saying that eating the Son of Mans flesh and drinking his blood are now requirements for his followers. You can almost hear the people say “I didn’t sign up for this.”   As they slowly back away. But some of the more ardent supporters, some of those more desperate for this bread, may have thought they had misheard Jesus or that Jesus did not mean what he said. So, verse sixty says “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Perhaps this was an attempt to help Jesus back off on this teaching. It is interesting that John uses the term disciples here. “When many of his disciples heard it…”

When we hear “disciples,” we often think of the 12 but there were many other followers of Jesus, some who were present for most if not all of his ministry. Here we have not just the crowds grumbling and questing Jesus, but his disciples as well. Those who had traveled with him and heard his teaching over time. These people knew Jesus and Jesus knew them. The text says “But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you?”…

Does this offend you? While avoiding offending people at all costs is a hallmark of society, even our abhorrence for giving a reason for offense does not capture the sentiment as it is recorded in Greek. The Greek word is skandalizei from which our word scandal is derived. So, when Jesus is aware that the crowds and his disciples are complaining about him, he asks if his teachings are scandalizing them and then he doubles down. The crowds leave. Most of the disciples leave.

The scandalous radical nature of eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood is often lost on those prone to spiritualize this passage. This Johannine passage often gets filtered through the Eucharistic ritual where eating and drinking Christ is a regular practice. The idea of eating another’s flesh and drinking their blood has lost much of the scandalizing nature it held in ancient times. Perhaps though, other scandals can just as easily take its place as reasons why people walk away or lose hope.

Clergy abuses in all shapes and sizes, infidelity and sexual misconduct, financial mishandling, racism, sexism, the abuse of children. We see these across the country and across denominations. Scandals that cause people to question faith and hope. Now, unlike in John 6, Jesus is not causing these scandals through his teachings. Nonetheless, the church is burdened with them. Nonetheless, people are leaving due to failures of the institution and the people who are to be paragons of virtue. Certainty we cannot equate faith with the church and we might maintain that these failures do not occur in my church or our church. Yet, if we are going to hold that the Church is the body of Christ that there is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, we ought to ask the hard questions. Why and how? We ought to weep, lament, and seek change. We ought to recognize the challenge of holding onto faith in the midst of scandal. The challenging of hope when hopelessness is so much easier.

What do we do when faith breaks down? When the well-worn paths of piety perish? When it feels that God is calling us to the impossible or when despair looms so large that the valley of the shadow of death feels like a permanent dwelling place. What can we do? We can walk away and look elsewhere. Give up on finding ways to incorporate faith into modern life. Giving up that there are deeper meanings and purposes to life. Eschewing hope.

In the text, Jesus turned to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” We do not know if they were the only ones left at this point, but it is significant to note that this is the first time the Gospel of John mentions the twelve disciples as a distinct group. John records some of the early calling stories we find in the Synoptic accounts but here, for the first time in John, they are named the twelve. Perhaps the last 12 still standing.            Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

We don’t know the tone of Peter’s response. Perhaps this was a triumphant proclamation of courage and hope “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Perhaps it was said with a mixture of despair and realization “Lord, to whom can we go?” As if to say they would go somewhere if they could, but they’ve already left their jobs and are marked as your disciples no one else would ever take us at this point. We put our trust in you and now we have no other choice. “Lord, to whom can we go?”

Maybe it was said with a mixture of hope and despair. Certainty the disciples could not escape feeling despair as they watched Jesus and by extension themselves be abandoned by fellow disciples; and yet, they chose to stay which is fundamentally hopeful. The harshness of the teaching certainly would not have been lost on them. The reality that the people would go from trying to make Jesus king to having some try to kill him in the next passage would not have been lost on them. That even in the midst of rejection, even in the midst of hard teachings and hard times, twelve remained. Hope won.

Even a glimmer of hope, the smallest spark, and the dimmest candle stand in defiance to proclaim that all if not lost. Our summer preaching series is titled “Toward a Common Hope.” I love how Boston University’s paper titled their article about the series “The Necessityof Hope InspiresSummer Preaching at Marsh Chapel.” The necessity of hope inspires. Of course, the word inspires is derived from the Latin inspirare, in breath or in the Spirit. Hope is inspired in, by, and through the Spirit. The deprivation of hope in daily life means it has become a rare commodity. The need for hope is why people love stories about those who have beaten the odds or rise to the challenge.  People are so desperate for hope because far too many of us are starved of it. When Jesus says I am the bread of life, what he also says is I am hope.

It would be great if I could stand here and tell you that Mark, that young man I met with for months at the hospital changed his whole life. That he left resolved to get off the streets and go back to school. But I cannot. One day I went to the hospital and he was gone. As he had done in many foster care homes, he ran away. No goodbye. No forwarding address. For all I know, he could have left and been killed in the retaliation that was planned. I have no idea what effect my conversations had with him. What seeds germinated and which ones didn’t. But I choose to trust, hope, and pray that Christ is not done with him. That Mark has the opportunity to find nourishing hope that can only be found in the bread of life.

Even though life is not filled with story book endings, it does not mean that there is no hope. There is a sense in which the hope of Christ, the nourishment of the bread of life can be found in the most unlikely places. Faith and spirituality do not need to fit into neat boxes. Christ is not bound by the walls of the Church or words on a page. My friends hope is infectious. It only takes a little to grow and spread. But we live in a time where we must choose to search for hope. To plant hope. To nurture hope. And to share hope. Dear friends, choose hope.

-The Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens, Ph.D. Student in Practical Theology: Homiletics, Boston University School of Theology

Sunday
July 22

The Spiritual Utility of Discouragement

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Kings 19:4-16

2 Corinthians 6:1-10

Matthew 11:28-30

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Exactly one year ago, I was in Sewanee, Tennessee for a conference. One afternoon we went off campus for a hike, and as we were driving back in one of the big University of the South vans, we started to pass an historical marker on the side of the road, and the driver asked, “Does anybody know about the Highlander Folk School?” I said, “Stop the van!” We pulled over at the site where the original Highlander Folk School had stood. Founded in the 1930s by Myles Horton, Highlander’s first focus had been the education and empowerment of rural people in Tennessee. It became active for decades in the labor movement, but when the unions reneged on their commitment to racial equality, Highlander shifted its focus to the Civil Rights movement. It hosted Citizenship Schools and voter registration drives across the South, and held workshops that brought whites and blacks together for training and planning. It was shut down by the state of Tennessee in 1961, and then reincorporated as the Highlander Center in New Market, TN, where it continues its work today. Pete Seeger learned the song “We Shall Overcome” at Highlander. Martin Luther King, Jr. attended its workshops, and a photo of him there was plastered all over billboards in the South with the caption, “MLK attends Communist Training School.” I had learned about Highlander as part of my seminary education, and have long been inspired by its scrappy dedication to democratic education, creative resistance to prejudice and oppression, and perseverance in the face of long odds.

My favorite story about Highlander took place in 1955. A number of black and white civil rights activists had gathered from across the South for two weeks of training. At the end of the workshop, these men and women went around in a circle to share what they planned to do when they returned home to their communities. One woman, though, could not think of what to say. She was in her early 40s, the executive secretary of the NAACP in Montgomery. But she had grown discouraged, and the thought of returning home was daunting. “I’m from the cradle of the confederacy,”she said, when her turn came. “The whites won’t let the blacks do anything, and the blacks won’t stick together. I can’t think of anything I could do that would make a difference.”

That was 1955. In 1956, this same woman decided that she did have it in her, after all, to do something, at home in Montgomery. Or, rather, to not do something. She decided not to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, in defiance of Jim Crow law. Her name was Rosa Parks.

This sermon series at Marsh Chapel is on the theme of “Moving Towards Hope,” and my sermon this morning is titled, “The Spiritual Utility of Discouragement.” We can’t move through hope, without moving through discouragement. And yet, discouragement is a feeling that Christians are usually discouraged from having. It is seen as a trap, the gateway to despair, or just plain negative. Pessimistic. We have a sense that spiritual people, and especially Americans, should be able to look on the bright side, to see the silver lining, to remain optimistic and hopeful no matter what.

But you know, dumpster fires don’t have a silver lining. And there are many reasons why the phrase “dumpster fire” was added to the Merriam Webster Dictionary earlier this year.

So I guess I’m here this morning to preach some good news about discouragement, for those of you who, like me, find yourselves deeply discouraged about our national life, the state of our democracy, and even the state of our humanity. The good news is that we can engage our discouragement, learn from it, maybe even wrestle a blessing from it. We can do that, with God’s help. Our discouragement has things to teach us, if we let it. But we can’t learn from it unless we are willing to spend some time exploring what discouragement truly is, and what its utility might be. So first we’ll define it; we will consider three uses of it; and then we’ll talk about how to move through it, towards hope.

Were you surprised that Rosa Parks, one year before her famous act of civil disobedience, was in such a low place? That she felt that all her faithful work of many years had been futile? That even after experiencing two weeks of the kind of equality and harmony that she had dreamed of, that she still felt powerless?

\If we banish discouragement from the range of spiritually acceptable emotions, and view our own discouragement as a failure, then we usually also reason that spiritual giants like Rosa Parks, MLK, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the saints of the church—they must not have ever felt this way. Or, at least not for very long. But if you read biographies, or the lives of the saints—you’ll know this is not true. If anything, great souls have more and deeper bouts of discouragement, more intense periods of self-doubt, more times when they wonder if their work has been for nothing, than most of us. So the first step of grappling with our own discouragement, whether it comes from within, or from what is going on in our world, is to stop treating it like a sign of our weakness or failure, and instead to claim it as a rational human response to deep disappointment.

What causes discouragement? Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, has an alliterative answer: “fatigue, frustration, failure, and fear.” Discouragement is an emotional response to these four kinds of experiences. (http://www1.cbn.com/biblestudy/some-cures-for-discouragement)

I have a few different images for discouragement. The first is, discouragement as a crossroads. It is a disorientation that forces us to choose a new direction. It is a kind of reckoning. And just as a crossroads is between towns in a kind of no man’s land, our own times of discouragement can feel like a wilderness, where we don’t know which road to choose, or are too worn down to even make a choice, and so we’re stuck.

My second image is of a kind of sinking feeling. I think of discouragement as, when you are swimming in a pool, and you choose to allow yourself to sink to the bottom for a while. There might be lots of splashing and activity above, but you have sunk down so that, holding your breath, you are looking at the pool from below, from a new perspective. Now, if you stay there too long, you’ll drown. That is called despair. But this perspective, from the bottom of the pool, can be a useful vantage point, temporarily. You can see things with a stillness and a clarity that you can’t see from the surface. So while discouragement can feel like sinking, it is a sinking that can also allow us to go deeper.

And finally, discouragement is a heart condition. That is the root of the word, courage, cor, Latin for heart. To be encouraged is to take heart; to be discouraged is to lose heart. And this is “heart” in the sense of the Hebrew Bible, of heart, soul, and mind being wrapped up together: heart as the core, the center of our being. Discouragement rocks us to our core. It is destabilizing, diminishing; it’s a spiritual loss of oxygen.

So how can a condition like this have any kind of utility for us as Christians? Well, I’ll be frank with you: according to the great Google, most people think that it doesn’t. So this is some original theology happening, right now! But I am convinced, that in God, no part of our experience is wasted; what seems to be garbage turns out to be compost.

So here are three spiritual uses of discouragement, which we will look at through the lens of our scriptures for today.

First, discouragement throws us back on the mercy of God. Second, it gives us a unique perspective on our situation that is disorienting, but also valuable. Third, discouragement is an important part of the soul’s natural pendulum.  There are three uses, because three is the holiest number for preachers! Three persons of the Trinity; three points to every sermon.

So, use number one: Discouragement throws us back on the mercy of God. When I’m doing fine, when it’s smooth sailing, I tend to chalk that up to my own efforts. The temptation of peaceful times is to become spiritually complacent. Fatigue, frustration, failure, and fear shake off that complacency quickly. I turn back to God—for assurance, for solace, for wisdom, for clarity out of perplexity. We sang “Sweet Hour of Prayer” just now—I love the way this hymn depicts prayer as this sheltering relationship in the midst of the storm of life. “In seasons of distress and grief/my soul has often found relief.” Our trials and griefs make us turn back towards God, our creator, redeemer, and sustainer. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?”the Psalmist asks. In his distress, he longs for God, “as a deer longs for flowing streams.”Discouragement makes us thirsty for the waters of life. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give your rest. . . For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”Times of discouragement are painful—but they can also force us to seek God with a greater yearning; to go deeperin our relationship with God; to put away our stained-glass sentiments and to show up to prayer boldly, and with greater honesty and vulnerability. Our families, our friends, our colleagues may not want to see that side of us: but God does. Jesus says, take my yoke upon you. Let’s work on this together.

Secondly, discouragement gives us a perspective that is disorienting, but also valuable. It is the bottom of the pool. For Rosa Parks, the safety of the Highlander Folk School provided her with this kind of new perspective. She wrote, “At Highlander, I found out for the first time in my adult life that this could be a unified society, and that there was such a thing as people of different races and backgrounds meeting together in workshops, and living together in peace and harmony. It was a place I was very reluctant to leave.” (Myles Horton, The Long Haul, pp.149-150) This supportive environment allowed her to confront her discouragement honestly: to admit to herself that she felt the odds were too great, and the forces of segregation were too strong for her to confront. She said, “I gained there the strength to persevere in my work for freedom, not just for blacks, but for all oppressed people.”But this strength came not by pushing away her feelings of doubt and discouragement, but by acknowledging them, and sharing them.

The prophet Elijah had a similar experience, of retreating to a place of safety, to confront the cost of facing the forces of oppression. Elijah is a political dissenter. He is a fighter and a crusader for justice. But in the lesson from second Kings, we see him exhausted, ready to give up in the wilderness, having fled for his life from Ahab and Jezebel. He is done. He is despairing. Huddled in a cave on Mt. Horeb, the word of the Lord speaks to him: “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Elijah gives a summary of his career as a prophet, and ends with, “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”It was all for nothing.

And then Elijah is granted this vision of the Lord passing by, where there is a gale force wind, and then an earthquake, and then fire. And the scripture says that the Lord was not in any of these; they were just the prelude to the presence of the Lord. Elijah knows the presence of the Lord is in that place when he hears this mysterious “sound of sheer silence.” Paradoxical. Ominous. The King James Version translates the Hebrew as “a still small voice.” But the “sound of sheer silence” has something very intense about it, something powerful.

When this reading appears in the lectionary, it ends at that verse. Sermons on this passage often end up being about listening to the voice of God within, and the importance of still small voices as opposed to displays of power, etc. And those are fine sentiments. But they ignore the main message of what the sound of sheer silence actually communicates to Elijah, which comes in the next several verses. And let me tell you, the still small voice throws it down. It tells Elijah to essentially go back, and foment revolution against Ahab and all the political powers that have become idolatrous and have abandoned the covenant with Yahweh. Elijah is told to start a holy war. He is to anoint two new kings, which of course is not going to sit well with the current kings, and also to anoint his own successor, Elisha.

And when these things come to pass, we learn that Elijah was wrong: he was not the only one left. There are seven thousand other prophets left in Israel who still worship the Lord. And through a long and circuitous path that is not without great cost, Israel returns to the Lord.

Elijah’s time in the wilderness forced him to answer some big questions. And if we sit with our own discouragement instead of pushing it away, we, too, will have some questions to answer: core questions about our identity, our deepest beliefs, and what is truly possible for us. Who do I think I am? What am I doing here? What is my purpose? And what can I really do?

Seasons of discouragement can be times of painful disillusionment in our lives. But you know, there’s a funny thing about the word “disillusionment.” To become disillusioned, is to experience loss. And yet, it is also a gain: because it is better to live without illusions! Disillusionment means we are no longer being deceived, or deceiving ourselves. The truth can hurt, but in the Gospel of John we are told that the truth will set us free.

The third utility of discouragement is that it is part of the soul’s natural pendulum. I’m thinking here of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the 16thcentury founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. Ignatius knew the value of the emotions, all the emotions, in the life of the spirit. He knew that the so-called negative emotions, channeled correctly, could help us grow in love and grow closer to God; in fact, that they are essential to our life-long conversion. He talked about a movement of the soul between desolation and consolation. And this movement continues all our lives, back and forth. This is how we grow spiritually. It’s important to understand this, and to understand that both states are temporary, and neither is better than the other. In times of discouragement, we need to remember that engaging with the sources of our discouragement can propel us out of this state, and into consolation, into encouragement, again. Elijah did as the still small voice commanded him. He did return, in spite of his fears, to confront Ahab, and to triumph over the prophets of Baal. Rosa Parks admitted her discouragement, her feelings of the futility of her work. And then she participated in an act of civil disobedience that ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Civil Rights movement. In the middle of the bus boycott she wrote to a colleague, We are having a difficult time here, but we are not discouraged. The increased pressure seems to strengthen us for the next blow.” (https://rosaparksbiography.org/bio/the-boycott/)

So how do we come to that place, where in the midst of such struggle, we don’t feel discouraged, but empowered and equipped? That rather than disoriented, disillusioned, we feel grounded in our identity, our purpose, and in the truth of God’s love? I think here, the Apostle Paul is our man.

Paul certainly embraced the full range of his emotions. No recipient of any of his epistles ever asked, “But tell us how you really feel, Paul.”

Paul understood that Christianity is the religion of paradox—and that from a disciple’s point of view, that means holding contradictions together within oneself. As he says in 2nd Corinthians in describing his often-calamitous missionary journeys, We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

In other words, Paul had a really robust theology of down but not out. And I think we need to have one, too. Paul was willing to wrestle the blessing out of discouragement, to call upon the name of the Lord in his times of need, to sing out loud and proud in prison. Paul was in it for the long haul. He was committed.

Years ago in a parish where I once served, there was a woman named Roz who, whenever she ran into another member of the parish, would ask them if they were committed. You know, in the grocery store or at the dry cleaner’s. And it took a bit for these mild-mannered Episcopalians to realize that she was asking them if they were committed to Christ. Maybe we all need a friend like that—to challenge us and to provoke us into stating our deepest commitments, our truest purpose, wherever we are. Sometimes, our own discouragement is that friend—if we can befriend it.

         There is a wonderful few lines that I think sums up all I’ve been trying to say this morning. Margery Stoneman Douglas was the namesake of the high school in Parkland, Florida where, after the massacre in February, a number of students reignited the debate on gun control, all while in the earliest days of their own deepest grief. Margery surely would have been very proud of them. A journalist, advocate for women’s suffrage, ardent environmentalist responsible for the conservation of the Florida Everglades, and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, Stoneman Douglas passed away in 1998 at the age of 108. She once quipped, “I studied elocution at Wellesley College, and I’ve been going around elocuting ever since.”And her example has now inspired a new generation of courageous students, who are travelling the country, speaking and registering voters this summer. (https://www.teenvogue.com/story/who-marjory-stoneman-douglas-was) This is what Stoneman Douglas wrote in 1980:

“Be a nuisance where it counts, but never a bore. Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption, and bad politics—but never give up.”

We in the progressive Church need a robust theology of “down but not out,” and we need to engage in the spiritual practice of targeted nuisance-ing. This requires us to fully engage with our own discouragement, at the same time that we renew our trust in God, and cast ourselves on God’s mercy. To not be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed in all the violations of God’s law of love that make up the headlines today, would be to diminish our very humanity through callousness or willed ignorance. The odds are long: but God’s people are always in it for the long haul. We can learn from discouragement, and grow from it, without giving in to despair—and God’s grace will propel us into a new dawn of justice, compassion, and peace.

In God’s name, Amen.

 

Benediction:

May your own discouragement become a deep well from which you draw many gifts: reliance on God’s mercy; clarity from disorientation, and renewed purpose and commitment. May you wrestle a blessing from it, and widen the way of love in the world. And may God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless you and equip you to be a nuisance where it counts, to the glory of God’s holy name. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Regina L. Walton, Pastor and Rector of Grace Episcopal Church, Newton Corner, Massachusetts; Denominational Counselor for Episcopal/Anglican Students, Harvard Divinity School

Sunday
April 8

Special Guest Preacher: Deval Patrick

By Marsh Chapel

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The text for this sermon is unavailable.

Sunday
January 14

Plenty Good Room

By Marsh Chapel

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John 14:1-7

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-The Reverend Dr. Walter Earl Fluker, Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Ethical Leadership, Boston University School of Theology