Archive for the ‘Lenten Series 2016: A Decade of Calvin for Lent’ Category

Sunday
March 13

Calvin for Lent

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

John 12:1-8

Click here to listen to the meditations only

Mattherhorn

By an imaginative grace in the mind of a Presbyterian minister, we were invited to spend part of a seminary year in Geneva, Switzerland, underneath the shadow the great mountains, the Alps, of that region.  The minister was the Rev. George Todd, a founder two decades earlier of the East Harlem Protestant Parish, a still exemplary incarnation of community engagement against poverty, against racism, against bigotry, against xenophobia, against sexism, against the notion that the ‘poor you have always with you’.  Apparently, given the rhetoric and revelations of this political season in the United States, we still have a great deal of work to do.  Would somebody please shut the windows of heaven, that the saints need not hear our current discourse, language lastingly insulting to Mexicans, to Muslims, to women, by coarse extension to others who are other, and with the capacity for lasting hurt, especially in the ears of our children.  Shut the windows of heaven. George and Kathy Todd, with others, raised a generation of ministers and missioners, now the subject of a fine, new study, in a dissertation just completed here at Boston University, by a friend of Marsh Chapel, Ada Focer.

George corralled us, and a few others, to work for him at the World Council of Churches, whence he had recently gone, to provide, as he growled, ‘heat, light, and running water’.  Jan, you can still overhear, in those months, accompanied by piano the World Council mid-week worship service, with Emilio Castro or Philip Potter preaching. To think back upon George Todd’s influence, now decades past, is to scale up a great high peak, and to look out upon the vast beauty and need of a human race, longing, in such odd ways, for the presence of Christ. As we complete this decade’s reflection at Marsh Chapel, in dialogue with Calvin for Lent, George and others like him stand up and stand out as signs of hope for the future.

One summer Saturday that year we left Geneva, John Calvin’s city, and we drove an old car, a ‘deux chevaux’, a ‘two horse’, to find our way into the mountains.  After a while we transferred to a train, going higher still, and then later from Zermatt to Gornergratt, along old railroad lines.  As the sun came to a noonday brilliance, a cable car took us thence to the top of a great mountain, snow in July, and the powerful height, the pristine beauty of the creation, a hint of the power and majesty of Calvin’s view of the Creator.  Calvin is seen best from the pinnacle of the Matterhorn.  For this theological height, for this reverence for the divine freedom, for this austere, awesome vista, in his work, we are lastingly thankful, notwithstanding all and many profound disagreements along the railway up and forward.

“TULIP”

John Calvin’s theology has traditionally, perhaps over-simply, but at a first approximation accurately, been summarized by the so-called TULIP formula:  Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints.  A sober if not an entirely cheery, happy creed.

Yet, in the New Testament as a whole, the full gospel, at a first order of approximation, the opposite is expressed.  In the Gospel, Jesus loves people.  These people, and we too, we could discern then, must not have been totally depraved.  In the Gospel, as today, Jesus recognizes the choices that inevitably make us who we are.  Choice is relational and conditional, and makes us inspect what condition our condition is in.  These people, and we too, must have not been unconditionally elected.  In the Gospel, Jesus gathers everybody, all, and addresses all with the invitation, as today, to repent. These people, and we too, we could discern then, must not have been limited to the very narrow, tiny minority of the pre-destined elect.  In the Gospel, Jesus faces, heartsick, the brutal truth, that people, and we ourselves, can and do resist the invitations of love.  They must not have been powerless.  Jesus’ grace was resisted, steadily and effectively, to the path of the cross.  Speaking of the cross, here Jesus himself does not persevere, not at least in Jerusalem, or in the spiritual culture of our time, nor does his cause, at least not in this passage.  Persecution not perseverance awaits this holy one, our work of memory in Lent.

In this decade, come Lent, we have pondered and wondered about Calvin, and conjured something like this:  A real celebration of the Gospel will depend upon another TULIP:   T. Something temporal. A heart for the heart of the city—a longing to heal the spiritual culture of the land. U. Something universal. An interreligious setting.  L. Something lasting  of love in mind. A developed expression of contrition.  I. Something imaginative. A keen sense of imagination.  P. Some real power. An openness to power and presence.    

A Biblical Chorus Line

Hear again the gospel in John 12.  The main trouble a preacher faces, with regularity, is how to understand, and so interpret, a passage from 2,000 years ago.  Every gospel passage, like this one from John 12, is like a hymn, or an anthem.  There is soprano line (the lead, the voice of Jesus of Nazareth).  There is an alto line (the most important voice, that just below the surface of the text, the voice of the early church, in its preaching of the gospel, its remembering, hearing and speaking.  For the early church Jesus meant freedom, and his cross and resurrection meant one thing—the preaching of good news, that we may face the world free from the world).  There is the tenor line (what we read from the pulpit, the gospel writer, in this case John).  And there is the baritone, basso profundo (the way the line reverberates throughout the rest of scripture, and down through nineteen hundred years of experience to us today, as John gives way to 1 John, and 1 John to Irenaeus, and Irenaeus to Calvin, Calvin to Wesley, and Wesley to March 13, 2016.)

Calvin on John 12

Calvin’s reading of John 12 emphasizes the overarching divine freedom, and a determinism at work in human affairs.  He writes:

It is surprising that Christ should have chosen as treasurer a man whom He knew to be a thief.  For what was it but giving him a rope to hang himself with.  Mortal man’s only reply can be that the judgments of God are a profound abyss.

Here is the inheritance of determinism, along with the view of Scripture addressed two weeks ago, the second lastingly great trouble for us, coming out of Calvinism.  Calvin:

God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation…We ought to contemplate providence not as curious and fickle persons are wont to do but as a ground of confidence and excitement to prayer.

So let us take stock of our Gospel today.  It includes one of the most infamous lines in Scripture, ‘the poor you have always with you’.   John here is making a Christological point, another sermon for another day, but in much regular memory of the Bible, especially when colored by a kind of Calvinism, the verse has not been a way of recognizing the overwhelmingly gracious presence of Christ, overshadowing all other concerns, but rather a tragic support to careless disregard for those at the dawn of life, those at the twilight of life, those in the shadow of life.  Be careful about your theological inheritance.   

K Tanner, in recent essay:  More specifically, a religiously inspired psychological sanction for hard work in the pursuit of profit reaches its height, Weber thinks, among religious people of a Calvinist stripe who believe in double predestination—that God predestines from all eternity some to salvation and some to damnation—and where the only effective way, it’s also believed, of stilling anxiety about whether one is to be saved or damned is the outwardly disciplined character of one’s everyday behavior without regard for material enjoyment. If one is graced by God, among the elect, one’s actions in ordinary pursuits will be of this character: coolly self-disciplined, restrained, non-hedonistic. And in that way amenable to capitalism’s requirements.”

The poor always with us?  Nonsense.  On a daily basis, we have as many poor among us as we choose to have poor among us.  There is no divine determinism about how many 12 year olds across this land, let alone those younger, are stripped of layers of human dignity, and saddled with the lastingly crippling effects of childhood poverty.  The poor we have are the number we choose to have, as a society.  The number of children and others without full education, effective health care, protective communal services that we have is a direct consequence, not of some pre-ordained, divinely determined formula, but of human choice, of human freedom.  It is a result of our choices in election and selection.  It is a result of our choices, in tithing and generosity.  It is a result of just how many poor we want to have with us, or how many we can somehow justify having with us.  There need not be any.  There need not be any.   It is a matter of human not divine freedom.  Diane Ravitch (NYRB 3/16):  As a society we should be ashamed that so many children are immersed in poverty and violence every day of their lives.

Presence For Lent

Jesus Christ may enter your life, at this point, along this night road crowded with terror.  This house is filled with the fragrance of perfume  covering him by grace. So utterly gracious is He that you may not notice without at least a homiletical whisper of introduction.   To the question of the poor, He makes no philosophical response.  To Plato he leaves the Thought that, really, suffering is illusory, unreal.  To Aeschylus  he leaves the proposition that suffering produces wisdom.  To Boethius he leaves the idea that suffering is instructive, since we need truth more than we need comfort.  To Freud he leaves the deep insight that all life, all creativity springs forth from some birth-pangs of suffering.  He makes no philosophical response.  His response is personal, and divine.

Rather, he prepares for his crucifixion, his burial, and his lasting resurrection presence.  Jesus meets us inside our suffering.  He meets us when we ask to withstand even when we cannot understand. He is with us.  Search the Scripture.  We find Jesus in the longsuffering of our people.

In the Old Testament teaching about the utter patience—passion–of divine love—in Jacob who worked for 7 years for Leah and another 7 for Rachel, throughout the exodus (Exodus 34), in the heart of the wilderness (Numbers 14), in psalms of lament (Psalm 86), in prophetic pain (Jeremiah 15).  Can’t you hear Jeremiah crying out:  “O Lord, thou knowest:  remember me and visit me and take vengeance upon my persecutors.  In thy patience, take me not away, now that for thy sake I bear reproach.”? Here he comes, prefigured in Job.  In Hosea, patient with adultery.  In Isaiah, awaiting resurrection. In John the Baptist, patient before death. In Paul, and Peter, and John of Patmos.

Sometimes, when we miss Jesus amid all our activity, we may find him again, or rather be found again by him, entering the poverty and hurt of his people…standing with the ill, ministering with the aging, incarnate to the lonely, showering himself on the pains of this life, present as the charismatic fullness of real life.  Jesus Christ empowers us to withstand suffering, even when, honestly, we have no way to understand it.  Here is Jesus Christ, publicly portrayed for you as crucified, who, unlike any merely religious representation of God, who, come Lent, invades the depth, the troubled dark night of life, to claim that darkness is as light for Him and for his own.

One Day

One day, in the fullness of time, compassion will reign.

One day there will emerge a people fully filled with a passion for compassion.

One day, as the Old Testament says, in the heart of difficulty with Job we will “sing songs in the night”.  And, “they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.  They shall mount up with wings as eagles.  They shall run and not be weary.  They shall walk and not faint.”

One day, as the New Testament says, the “long-suffering” grace of God will prevail.  Suffering will produce patience, and patience endurance, and endurance hope, and hope shall not disappoint us, because of the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.

One day…and why not start here, and why not begin now?…there will be a real community setting a patient, passionate, compassionate beat, a cadence of quiet endurance.

One day, in the fullness of time, His presence will reign.

O Day of God draw nigh

In beauty and in power

Come with thy timeless judgments now

To match our present hour.

Bring to our troubled minds

Uncertain and afraid

The quiet of a steadfast faith

Calm of a call obeyed.

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

Sunday
March 6

Sacrament as Prayer

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

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Came to himself….

Scripture

J Wesley, 5 means of grace

Bible, reading and memory, examples

Luke:  what is absent (religion), spiritual not religious, greek and gnostic, Delphic oracle

Bible full of variety, not a single theme (eg Gospels)

Diversity preceded unity in earliest Christianity

Marrow of Gospel; grace, freedom, pardon, acceptance, mercy, reconciliation, peace, acceptance, inclusion, embrace…love

2 Cor

1 John 4: 7

Fasting

Meaning, diet and exercise

Wesley, T\F, horseback, 5am preaching

We, spirit, soul, body

Spiritual Yoga: integration, stillness community
Ministry on campus:  worship, relationship, safety

Lent has its point here—though we are not meant to live in Lent, we live in Easter, and Sundays remind us so in Lent

Prayer

Public and private, all year this year at Marsh

Senses, Language, Practice, Architecture, Sacrament of Prayer

Moment, quiet, meditation, walk, pause, own-most self

Have no anxiety about anything…Phil 4

In this nave, week by week—nothing

Well being vs work\ production vs self\immediacy vs imagination

Sacrament

Mystery, definition, two, five rites, sign, grace, simplest elements, entry\journey, belonging\meaning, beginning\sustaining, prevenient\sanctifying

Thanksgiving (eucharist), remembrance, presence

Ever need to take a spiritual shower? (Remember baptism)

Cleanse, from misuse of public forms of rhetoric, meant to allow difference, courtesy maintains a way to disagree, sermon prayer speech address debate, when gears stripped, better angels, ask not, then the path opens from a civil society to social incivility, be careful what you find entertaining, or where, where entertainment ever TRUMPS engagement

Grief as a sacrament

Conversation

Luke 15 is a conversation, barely engaged

The week at Marsh

Circles of 6-12 people

Sherry Turkel 2 books

What is an education—periodic table or finding one’s voice?

Soul and World Soul, Word and Word of God,

Thurman to recite 139

Sacrament as Prayer:  mark the means of grace:  Scripture, fasting, prayer, sacrament, Christian conversation

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

Sunday
February 28

Calvin for Lent

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 13:1-9

Click here to listen to the meditations only

Frontispiece

Lift up your hearts:  Amid the furious, random hurts in life, which fall upon us without respect of person and without divine intention, in random chaotic violent abandon, there remains, over time, a chance for growth, the possibility of good change, a capacity for faithfulness, over time.  Learn sympathy.  Cultivate patience. Give it just a little more time.  Give it just a little more time.  Give it just a little more time. Let it alone, Sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure.  And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you may cut it down.

Calvin Again

This Lent we again, one last time, engage as our theological conversation partner in preaching, the great Geneva Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564).   We have found it helpful, in this season, to link our preaching here at Marsh Chapel, an historically Methodist pulpit, with voices from the related but distinct Reformed tradition, which has been so important over 400 years in New England.   The Methodist tradition has emphasized human freedom, the Reformed divine freedom.  In Lent each year we have brought the two into some interaction, both harmonious and dissonant. For example, Genesis 1 is a more Anglican or Methodist chapter, if you will, representing the goodness of creation.  2 and 3 are more Presbyterian or Calvinist, if you will, representing the fallen character of creation, known daily to us in sin, death and the threat of meaninglessness.  Both traditions, English and French, make space for both creation and fall.  But the emphasis is different, one more garden the other more serpent, one more creation the other more fall.  The English tradition emphasizes human freedom, and the French divine freedom.  (Both traditions are with us today, even embodied, as it happens, in our current Presidential campaigns, wherein still there is at least one Presbyterian and at least one Methodist (☺)). With Calvin we encounter the chief resource for others we have engaged in Lent in other years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), Paul of Tarsus (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin, (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).  

    2016 marks the tenth and last Lent in which from this pulpit we engage the Calvinist tradition.  Over the next decade, beginning Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, will turn left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, and others, one per year.  Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?

Calvin Interpreting Luke (1)

Let us listen, now, to John Calvin interpreting today’s Gospel, Luke 13: 1-9.   In brief, we might judge, his interpretation, utterly typical of his work on the whole, is both right and wrong, both true and false.  First true, second false.

First, Calvin rightly and directly applies the passage to our self-concern, wherein we tend to be more self-centered than centered selves.

Calvin: “The chief value of this passage springs from the fact that we suffer from the almost inborn disease of over-strict and severe critics of others while approving of our own sins…Whoever is not shaken by God’s hand sleeps soundly in his sins as if God were favorable and propitious to him…(Commentaries, loc. cit.)

Calvin judges, rightly, that we do not easily sympathize with others’ hurt.  We sleep.  We sleep in our sins, unless somehow roused.  This gradual awakening to random hurt is at the very heart of young adulthood, and at the very heart of a college education.

Speaking of education:  You hear Elie Wiesel, in the death camps, saying that God is swinging on a rope in the face of the hung child.  You hear Arthur Ashe, dying of Aids, saying that the experience of racism is far worse than his mortal illness.  You hear Werner Klemperer bear witness to the slowly tightening noose around his Jewish neck in the Germany of the 1930’s. You hear Frank McCourt tell about licking greasy newspaper to survive childhood in Ireland.  You hear Agate Nasal tell of unspeakable horrors inflicted on defenseless women on the eastern front in the 1940’s.   You hear Tim O’ Brien remembering ‘The Things They Carried”.  And these all bear witness to hurt in history—with another list needed for hurricane and earthquake and tornado and plague, nature’s own force against innocent life.   You are becoming educated.

Speaking of emerging adulthood:  All of us learn in these years. In junior high school you often look in admiration at those just older.  Being with you takes us, daily, back to those fairer days.   One remembers…

When the senior youth gathered in the church or parsonage, we just younger watched and listened.  Our retired assistant pastor (he died suddenly at a church dinner a few years later) had a red haired son, Tommy.  He was a favorite for all—happy, a prankster, kind.  The next fall the group gathered at Christmas, the spring graduates now home from college for the first time, and enjoying the firelight, the tree, the chocolates, and the mistletoe.  That Christmas Tommy stood out for his red hair, but also for his green uniform.  Bright red hair, sharp green private’s Army uniform.  Red and Green.  He was headed to Vietnam.  He came to mind last week, getting the sermon ready, in a quiet moment of reading Tim O’Brien’s memoir, The Things They Carried.  A few years later, the war now over, some of us came home from our first year of college, too.  The pastor said, he teaching meager sympathy in a violent world, ‘You might want to go over to the V.A. in Syracuse sometime this break.  Tom Mallabar is there.  He lost his legs, you know, in the war.’  We did not know.  We did go.  The pastor knew how easy it is, Calvin was right, absent an act of sympathy, absent a readiness to stop, to look, to listen, to look past the tragedy of lasting hurt.  We sleep, unless roused. How human it is to look past hurt, someone else’s anyway.   Some of in the years of emerging adulthood, includes waking up to others’ hurt.  You are becoming adults.

And a Lukan word from Ernest Tittle: Perhaps we, too, would do well to reject the way of military force and violence, placing reliance instead on efforts to combat hunger, misery and despair, to lift from anxious peoples the burden and threat of armaments, to abolish racial and religious discrimination, bring industry under the law of service, and assure to all (people) everywhere the opportunity of a good life (39)…(E.F. Tittle)

Calvin Interpreting Luke (2)

Second, however, Calvin misinterprets by a wide margin the fuller meaning of the Gospel today.  His penchant for judgment occludes his vision of grace.  On a regular basis.

Rendering not the stories now but the parable of the fig tree: “The sum of it is that many are tolerated for a time who deserve destruction…They do not realize their sin unless they are forced…”

But listen to the parable, Brother Calvin!  Here in Luke, not judgment, but grace is affirmed, not death but life, not authority or force, but growth and change.  In Luke 13, the question of ‘Why?’ is set aside in favor of the challenge to repent.  Governmental terrorism, in the hands of Pilate, and natural accident, in the case of a Tower in Siloam, are simply admitted to be what they are—utterly random in impact.  

In the parable, the gardener points away from past performance and points toward future potential.  Time.  Time is given.  A time of reprieve, a time of reckoning, a time of recollection, a time of restoration.  Time heals.  There is impending judgment, but there is time for change.  This is Luke’s own material.  This is Luke’s own toddler, budding attempt to deal with what John, alone, in full adult fashion, addressed, the church’s abject disappointment that the expected return of Jesus, on the clouds of heaven, ‘before this generation passes away’ (Luke 21:32) has not happened.  The first century is ending and Jesus has not returned.  In the main, Luke simply continues to hold out hope, soon and very soon, of the traditional expectation.  Not here in the parable of the fig tree.  Here he finds, channeling his inner Fourth Gospel Spirit, the possibility that more time may be a good thing.  We would all say so, 20 centuries later, since more time has become our time!  The Greeks taught us that life is long.  Give it just a little more time.  Here Calvin, wrongly, misses Luke’s point and power, as much as earlier he caught both.  Too much TULIP and not enough fig tree.  Especially, and perilously:  too authoritarian and too inflexible, and too inerrant, a view of the Holy Scripture.  Scripture alone, not Scripture in tradition by reason with experience.  No, says Luke, change, over time, can come and can become lasting goodness.  

Friday last week we sat in the southern California sunshine, the daily environment of our son and daughter in law, paradise, San Diego.   Imagine our surprise as we opened the New York Times, the paper of record, that morning, in the blue-sky light breeze warm water SO CAL sun.  One of two letters to the editor was written from the pews of Marsh Chapel.  Written out of your community, sent to the great city of New York, printed, and passed on to the needs of the world around, including those of us reading 3,000 miles away, on Pacific Beach.

Our friend, Advisory Board member, retired BU Academy Headmaster, Mr. James Berkman addressed the country, in four paragraphs, regarding the life, death and legacy of Antonin Scalia, and the matter of interpretation. The letter complimented recent Times reporting on Scalia.  The letter affirmed the ‘inarguably brilliant’ aspects of the judge’s work, and its pervasive influence.  The letter recalled a question raised by the author to Judge Scalia, in Cleveland, years ago, and the creative ‘dissent’ the judge offered in response: ‘he sidestepped to deliver a powerful answer on a facet he cared more about’.   Yet, the letter, in true honorable fashion, also recognized the limitations and dangers of ‘originalism’:  ‘if we were to follow (Scalia’s) philosophy, where would women and blacks be today:  still treated as second class citizens and slaves of our founding fathers?’

Interpretation of an ancient text, whether the US Constitution, or the Holy Scripture, does indeed require acute appreciation for what the venerable text originally meant. Without that mooring, we are adrift, forever at sea with our own proclivities alone to guide us.  But truth was meant to set sail and not merely to lie still in the harbor!  The bark needs both anchor and sail, both mooring and wind.  Interpretation, that is, also, and more so, requires of us the courage to exact from the text, not only what it meant, but also, now, what it means.  Our teacher Father Raymond Brown, said often, and taught repeatedly, that the full meaning of a text is not always best given in its mere wooden repetition.  In fact, the conservative Roman Catholic Father Brown taught otherwise:  what most resembles faithfulness to the ancient tradition may look very much like change, growth, something new, today.

In life and in interpretation things take time.  Time.  Let the fig tree have another year.  Time.  Let me nourish the tree with water and nutrients.  Time.  Give this scrawny plant some time, and see what happens.  As the letter to the editor said, ‘it is appropriate to weigh the balance of legacy’.  One of the real, lasting dangers and perils left to us by a certain perspective in the Calvinist tradition, still strong and at large today across parts of this great land, is the shadow of Biblicism, even of Bibliolatry, the mistaken preference for the text over the very Lord to whom the text bears witness.  And the Lord is the Spirit.  And where the Spirit is, there is freedom.  Over forty years of ministry now, and over forty years of the privilege of teaching the Bible, which I love with all my heart, which I love with my very life and time and work, the terrible, stinging memory stands out, of ways the Bible has maimed children, women, men, families, others, when wrongly rendered.  Calvin and Luther may have needed all the weight and power of the Bible, without its aporia, nuance, variety and depth, to break from Rome.  Sadly, some of that weight, without time without water or nutrient, and without proper, educated, informed, disciplined interpretation, falls like a millstone upon the weak.  A case in point, of course, is current Methodist use of the Scripture to support bigotry against gay people.  When one brings to mind all the children in all the churches in all the pews in all the years, who know at age 8 that they are gay, and what they have heard from men in black robes, ministers respected and revered even by their parents, it causes one to tremble.  On one hand, asked how well I know the Bible, I can respond, ‘The real truth is not how well I know the Bible, but how well the Bible knows me’.  I love the Bible.  On the other hand, when the weight of holy writ, and the power of tradition, by bad–originalist?–interpretation—six verses from Leviticus, Romans and Corinthians as opposed to whole New Testament, the whole Pauline corpus, and the whole letter to the Galatians, see the whole of its chapter 3—falls like a millstone on the necks of children in the minority, and that with the blessing of many who should and do know better, but say nothing, and many of them educated at Africa University, and riding Methodist dollars into prosperity on that continent, then I do not love the Bible.  Calvin bears some responsibility here—though of course, not alone.  One of the two great failings we inherit from Calvinism we see just here:  The Bible become a millstone around the neck.  (The second we shall address March 13.)

Coda

Amid the furious, random hurts in life, which fall upon us without respect of person and without divine intention, in random chaotic violent abandon, there remains, over time, a chance for growth, the possibility of good change, a capacity for faithfulness, over time.  Learn sympathy.  Cultivate patience. Give it just a little more time.  Give it just a little more time.  Give it just a little more time. Let it alone, Sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure.  And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you may cut it down.

Bring sympathy and patience to bear.  Can you do that this week? Where in your life will a little sympathy and a little patience bear a lot of fruit? Paul Scherer, a fine Calvinist, wrote in a much more sympathetic and patient era:  “I know the things that happen:  the loss and the loneliness and the pain…But there is a mark on it now:  as if Someone who knew that way himself, because he had traveled it, had gone on before and left his sign; and all of it begins to make a little sense at last—gathered up, laughter and tears, into the life of God, with His arms around it!”

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

Sunday
February 21

A Heavenly Citizenship

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 9:28-36

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Good morning! I am always humbled at the opportunity to stand in this pulpit, where so many past and present great preachers stand, and I am always grateful to Dean Hill for extending the invitation to be with you again this morning.

The lectionary is a lovely discipline, but it also can be pretty terrifying, especially when your limited preaching schedule is determined by those far above your pay grade.

The regular rhythms of ordered worship, including regular lectionary preaching, can have as much of the wild movement of the spirit in them as any other form of worship and preaching. Case in point: I recently had an extended conversation with the Dean about my in-progress dissertation on Philippians, and a large part of the conversation focused on the question, “will it preach?” I ask this question because I am concerned with ethics just as much as history; that is, I would like to do history ethically but I am also concerned about the ethical implications of our shared Christian histories. I am concerned with communities long gone just as much as those living and moving and having their being today; that is, I take the communion of the saints both in heaven and on earth seriously. Our fraught, fragile, humanity is entangled in its own histories, and the past is no more dead than the present is alive; that is, the gospel is both good and news because it is and has been told, retold, studied, shared, spoken, preached, taught, written, shared, translated, and lived not in a vacuum, but by real people.

So I felt a sense of the spirit, or at least of Deanly intervention, when I found my annual preaching assignment falling on this Second Sunday of Lent, where our epistle lesson is from Philippians. And lo and behold, it’s a text I have studiously avoided dealing with in my dissertation! So here I am, dealing with it this morning, in sermonic form.

Knowing that, my sisters and brothers, I ask for your indulgence to let me lay aside, for today, Luke’s lament for Jerusalem, to gloss over the courageous question of the Psalmist, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I be afraid?”, and to let me focus instead on Philippians. And, perhaps worse, I’m not even going to deal with our whole reading today, but instead focus on a single clause, “our citizenship is in heaven.” [This by the way, is how people write whole dissertations about a single, four-chapter letter.]

So I invite you to meditate with me this morning upon “A Heavenly Citizenship”

The best way I can get at what it means to have citizenship in heaven is to think about the koinōnia of the gospel, the commonwealth of the gospel, which is, I think, the central theme of this letter. In other letters to other communities, Paul calls them ekklēsiai, assemblies, churches, but here, in Philippians, in a letter full of love, imitation, friendship, and calls to like-mindedness, Paul claims that he and this beloved community are in a koinōnia in the gospel.

Koinōnia is far too frequently translated as fellowship today, a term which calls to mind at once our beloved coffee hour and some sort of men’s glee club meeting, but our community is not only our coffee hours and our hymn singing. My best way to describe a koinōnia is as a joint venture. Paul and the Philippians, and you and I and the whole of the community of faith, we are in a joint venture in the gospel together.

This might make you a little squeamish because it sounds a little business-y, doesn’t it? And, actually, it is really an economic sort of term. In antiquity, people used this term, koinōnia, venture, in all sorts of business transactions. From land-leases, to marriage contracts, to joint investments in flax-seeds businesses, this terms springs up again and again in ancient papyri and epigraphy, little scraps of ancient paper and scratchings in stone. When there is a sharing of both risk and reward, there you have a koinōnia. And that, beloved, is what I think Paul means by modelling the community of faith as a koinōnia, a venture. For together we take on the risk and reward of the gospel.

If this were my dissertation (it’s not), I’d share with you some ancient inscriptions to help illustrate my point, but I’ll spare you here. I think I can explain this with a more contemporary example.

Once upon a time, when I was an undergraduate student, I stole a BU mattress. Technically, I didn’t actually steal a mattress, but the university thought I did, and I ended up paying exactly 1/3 the cost of a bright-blue, fire-retardant, twin X-long mattress, $90, which to the university is basically the same thing as acknowledging that I stole a mattress.

How the heck did this all happen? My freshman year, I won, or thought I won, the housing lottery. Instead of a crowded, stinky large dormitory, with its shared bathrooms and cinderblock walls, I was placed in a triple in a brownstone on Bay State Road. I was destined for wall sconces, a non-working fireplace, wood paneling, and other features that suggested a classier college experience. Imagine my and my roommates’ surprise, when, moving in, we found ourselves in what can only be described as one of the smallest triples on campus. Two of us slept a mere 2 feet apart from one another perpendicular to the wall, and the third had to set up her mattress against the wall apart from us. To squeeze between the space left in the middle of the room, you had to turn sideways and shimmy, or you’d bang your legs against the metal bedframes. Somehow, we also squeezed three dressers, and three desks into this oddly shaped room. The windows looked out, not over Bay State Road, but the alley, including the delivery entrance for Sargent, where they deliver the cadavers for the Human Gross Anatomy Lab. The rest of the building had spacious doubles and triples, but we, we were clearly in the worst room in the place.

The three of us made do for the year, but when room selection time rolled around, we began to eye the room across the hall. None of us really wanted to be in a triple again, but we weren’t confident we could get a lottery number high enough to snag a double or single. So, we entered a pact to move together as a triple, and we managed to get the room across the hall. The following year, we would be moving into a giant triple, facing the trees of bay state road. We had room to bring in a futon in addition to the BU furniture, and there would still be room to move about. There were 11 windows, We would have a large walk-in closet, and each of us would have a large corner of the room. With proper dresser positioning, we could each even have some modicum of privacy.

Except, that summer, we each received notice that one of the mattresses from the tiny triple was missing upon final inspection of the rooms. Before our accounts could be settled, before we could move in, before we could reach the promised land across the hallway, each one of us would need to pay for 1/3 of the mattress, that is unless one of us fessed up to taking the mattress. At first, vague accusations and mistrust flew. Who had checked out last, anyway? (We couldn’t remember.) Was one of us lying? After all, how well did we know one another anyway? Perhaps it was the impossibly chic roommate from Paris who had landed a hostessing job through charm and charisma. She was always staying out late for fascinating parties, poetry readings, gallery openings; maybe she took it for a lark or an art project. Or perhaps it was the roommate who had just gotten her first college boyfriend a few weeks ago. He had been hanging around quite a bit lately, and college students do things with mattresses all the time. Or maybe it was the quiet one who didn’t spend as much time with the other two. Who knew what she was thinking? None of this, of course, got us anywhere, because none of us had actually done anything with the mattress in question. Somehow, through bureaucratic red tape or facilities error, or other great mystery, we were all on the hook for this single, solitary mattress.

So, to reach the promised land across the green carpet and the original hardwood, we all eventually ponied up $90.

Beloved, my roommates and I were in a koinōnia; we shared together the risk, the hardship, and the reward, and we all shared in the joint cost of that mattress.

So Paul’s letter to the Philippians is chock full of financial language, including this central theme of a koinōnia in the gospel. This koinōnia, this venture, is not only how we relate to one another, but it is part of a much larger divine economy. Unlike my college roommate story, our koinonia is under God’s supervision; thus Paul writes in Philippians 1:6 “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Our gospel venture is not worked out in a vacuum, but in the confidence of faith we know that God has begun a good work in us and is able to bring it to completion. In a divine economy, God’s oikonomia, God’s house-rules, our relationship to one another is a joint venture, but this joint venture has God as its ultimate investor and site supervisor.

And now, to return to what it means to consider “A heavenly citizenship.”

Too often, when we read this passage, we imagine heavenly citizenship as endorsing an outlook that is solely otherworldly. Our heavenly citizenship is used to comfort us in suffering, our heavenly citizenships overlooks our human frailty in this life in hopes of the world to come. This is not necessarily bad theology, and it might sometimes be good pastoral care, but it is not a complete picture of our heavenly citizenship. Or heavenly citizenship is used to wash our hands of the troubles and challenges of this world. We invoke a kind of quietism because the world is just too messed up, too mired in sin to have any hope. Our denomination takes 40 years of wandering in the wilderness on LGBTQ inclusion. Our American political rhetoric has descended to a nadir of demagoguery, fear-mongering, and division. Our personal, student, and national debt seems too overwhelmingly large to ever possibly address, so we just keep putting off payments. Too often we throw our hands up, or wash our hands of these matters, despairing of this world, looking to our heavenly citizenship, to a long moral arc of the universe without any willingness to ask whether we or the universe need to be bending just a little, right now, to participate and move toward that long moral arc.

Too often we think of our heavenly citizenship as our passport. As Christians, we’ve got this little blue book which we can show upon arrival on the far shores of the stormy Jordan. No trouble with our border crossing, no wall to cross, we’re bound for the promised land, because we have our heavenly citizenship.

But passports aren’t the only part of citizenship. Citizenship comes with a participation in the bigger system, in the divine economy, and with that comes some obligations. Citizenship is not only about the benefits you get out of it, and that’s as true today as it was when Paul exhorted these Christ-communities in Philippi that they and we have a citizenship that is in heaven. Rome wasn’t exactly known as a tax-free haven, and the empire had significant judicial, financial, and bureaucratic systems that affected citizens and non-citizens alike. Paul couldn’t have conceived of any form of citizenship that didn’t also have participatory obligations attached to it, so I’m surprised when Christians think of heavenly citizenship as simply a “get out of hell free card.”

Perhaps as Protestants this makes us nervous because it sounds a little too much like works righteousness, but I don’t think that an expansive view of our participation in the broader divine economy in anyway contradicts a reliance upon God’s grace for salvation. As citizens of heaven we are in a koinōnia in the gospel under God’s supervision, and it is only by the grace of God that we are participants in this joint venture. This is how Paul can write that despite his current imprisonment, he and we can be confident that we are all shareholders in God’s grace. (Phil 1:7) We didn’t and we can’t earn those shares, they are a gift freely given, but our larger participation as a result of that grace demands our use of those gifts in full participation of our venture in the gospel.

I realize these are deep, and perhaps swirling, theological waters that might be crashing over your head, and probably mine, too, right now, so I’ll offer another more contemporary example.

The other day I came home from a productive meeting with my advisor after a short day of teaching to find Soren sitting on the couch, surrounded by a 6-foot radius of piles of paper. He had begun filling out our taxes. Soren has always done our taxes, but this year they are extra complicated, because we purchased a home in Portland last year and have been renting it on AirBnb. Asking him how it was going, he gave me the kind of look that communicates that I didn’t even have to ask. He told me that because of our AirBnb rental and because we are married, we are declaring ourselves a “qualified joint venture,” which means for tax purposes we would split all of the cost deductions and all of the profits equally. “That’s awesome!” I said, “Do you know what this means? In the eyes of the federal government, we’re in a koinōnia!” Soren was less thrilled, because he still has to do our taxes, but he did share my enthusiasm for a brief moment.

Beloved, our heavenly citizenship means that we participate with one another in God’s economy, and that participation is not without risk, reward, and obligation. Perhaps a theological orientation that is more wholistic, less self-oriented, and, I think, makes more sense, is to ask not what your heavenly citizenship can do for you, but what you can do for your heavenly citizenship.

And I think meditating on that sort of question is an excellent practice for Lent. Do not ask what heaven can do for you, but what you can do for heaven. I think this letter, this line of communication back and forth, binding together Paul, Timothy, Epaphroditus and the saints at Philippi, offers a roadmap, an examination of conscience, a way into prayer for you this Lent as you consider your heavenly citizenship. As much as we tend towards the heroization of Paul, he’s a part of a larger community, entangled with one another, bound together in the spirit. We’re a big community here at Marsh Chapel. We’re bound to one another across the vast expanses of time and distance, and we are together entangled in these moments of ordered worship that overcome these distances.

So, as a Lenten practice, I invite you to imagine Paul and Timothy writing, perhaps Epaphroditus carrying and reading aloud, and these named and unnamed saints listening to these words:

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full discernment to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Do you pray with joy, and thank God for those whom your remember in prayer? Are you confident that God is at work in you and that God will bring that work to completion? Do you hold one another in your hearts? Do you share in God’s grace with one another? Are you confident in your share in that grace no matter what your current circumstances? Do you long for better connection with those around you? Do you pray for others? Do you pray for their love to overflow more and more? Do you pray for them to have knowledge and full discernment? Do you help one another produce a harvest of righteousness for the glory and praise of God?

If, as the hymn says, I am bound for the promised land, where do my possessions lie? Where do I invest my wealth, my time, my energy, my life, and my very self? Do I invest myself in that which is most lasting, most true? Do I invest myself in other people, in their growth in faith and faithfulness?

And if I am bound for the promised land, whom do I invite to go with me? For, beloved, we are together in a koinōnia in the gospel.

We are, together, citizens of heaven.

Amen.

–The Reverend Jennifer Quigley, Chapel Associate for Vocational Discernment