Archive for the ‘The Rev. Brittany Longsdorf’ Category

Sunday
January 11

The Moment Between Chaos and Creation

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 1:4-11

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In the Beginning….this is a phrase we hear so often when we read the scriptures. In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. In the beginning was the word and the word was with god and the word was god. It seems especially appropriate to uplift the very beginning of our canonized scripture-Genesis 1:1, at the beginning of a New Year. We are a society of resolution, of movement, of goal-setting. At the beginning of each new year we resolve to lose weight, watch less TV, be more productive, and take on various tasks and endeavors that are often forgotten by the early snows of February. This year, I was so over-zealous that I wrote in my journal 12 different resolutions I wanted to accomplish, and then divvied them up and assigned them separate months-like 12 little Lenten projects throughout my year. This urge to be productive, planned, and off and running this time of year runs deep in our bones. In many ways the rush of things, the ebb and flow of the tides of our lives are inescapable and unending. Even in the cyclical endlessness of life, we still have this deep yearning for beginnings.  We find the need to begin each year anew-but our beginnings are often hurried, rushed, hustling-and bustling us to newer things, better selves.

So it is important for us to consider what happened in THE BEGINNING? Genesis 1 reads “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind of God swept over the face of the waters.”The translation of this passage, historically and due to the elegant language of the King James Version has often been understood as “In the Beginning, God created the heavens and earth”-giving the impression that God created something out of nothing, a common latin phrase for this creatio ex nihilo. This would mean that there was nothing before God first created the heavens and the earth.  But many Hebrew and old testament scholars see the Hebrew as perhaps being more grammatically accurate to say ‘God began creating the heavens and the earth’,  in this reading of the text the passage would hold the notion of God creating out of chaos-the latin term for which is ordo ab chao. This translation would imply that the universe already existed, and God creates purpose, order, and light within it. Creation, then, is in fact, a re-ordering of an already chaotic universe. It is this ordo ab chao reading that I want us to spend some time with today.

In Genesis, this universe is a formless void, a watery deep swirling and teeming with disorder, chaos, with no purpose and no life. The earth is wild, it is unknown, it is a dark and watery abyss. And yet, there is this moment in between ‘the beginning’ and God saying ‘Let there be light’. There is a quiet moment between the chaos of that world below and the creation yet to come. In that space, in those moments the wind, which in Hebrew is the same word for the spirit, ruah, is hovering, brooding just above the earth, sweeping across the water. I love this image- like a hen protecting her eggs, the holy spirit, broods, clutches, hovers above the abyss. The divine spirit encompasses a chaotic earth, waiting for that moment of birth, that moment of beautiful creation. IN our world today, when we experience chaos we crave creation-we feel rushed and urged to manage, order, begin again, start anew, dissolve and resolve and move forward from the chaos in our lives with immediacy. But in the same way there is a breath between 11:59 on New Years Eve and 12:00 a.m. on New years day, there is a space in between.  There is this one beautiful moment between chaos and creation where the spirit of God is so near to us, hovering over us, urging us to give into the beauty ahead of us.

Every year, we observe merrily as Christ is born in a manger on a chilly night amidst the hay bales and the donkeys (and if you have ever seen the film Love Actually-you know there were at least a couple of lobsters present at the birth of Jesus), we follow the star with the Magi and bestow gifts and grace upon our gentle Jesus. And suddenly, out of nowhere, liturgically it is Christ’s baptism Sunday. Last week, the Magi were bringing frankincense, myrrh, gold on a young toddler, and this week we see a fully grown, adult, Jesus going into the wilderness to seek out John the Baptist and begin his ministry. Before Jesus’ extraordinary life and teachings can begin, we find this separate moment that is neither here nor there, neither childhood, nor grown Rabbi-but a space in between. A quiet moment at the river, A chance for renewal, a baptism. John the Baptist is emanating the prophet Elijah by wearing camel’s hair and baptizing people in the wilderness. This image of wilderness is supposed to remind us of the 40 years the Israelites spent in the wilderness after the exodus. Wandering, lost, and barely surviving in desert heat, the wilderness for us is an image of chaos.

And yet Jesus seeks out John in that dry wilderness, in that chaos, to be baptized by him. In the Jewish tradition at this time, baptism was a source of renewal into the covenant of Israel-a repentance of sins so that one could be washed clean to join once again the people of God.  Also at this time, the Jewish tradition of baptism was widely self-service. People would go to the water and baptize themselves, by dipping their head under water, or sprinkling themselves with water from head to foot. They simply needed to be baptized in the presence of a prophet, like John the Baptist.  But when Jesus approaches, he asks John to baptize him, the physicality and vulnerability of this gesture cannot be overstated. In the space between the chaos of the wilderness and the creation of Jesus’ life as Rabbi-as minister, in that quiet moment, in that space-Jesus is held in the arms of his fellow human and washed clean. In that in-between moment, the same God that calls forth life from the primordial deep and dark waters in Genesis 1, calls Jesus to new birth out of to the waters of baptism.

Sometimes, creating that space between chaos and creation is not always easy for us, sometimes we need someone to help us center down. We fill our lives up with meaningful work, deep relationships, and required daily tasks and often, even at the beginning of a New Year, don’t give ourselves a chance to reflect, to really linger in reflect. Howard Thurman, who was once Dean of this Chapel and preached from this pulpit for many years, was a mystic man of faith, a compassionate mentor to many, and a slow searching man. I read earlier this week a story in Dr. Walter Fluker’s book “Ethical Leadership” about Howard Thurman and his relationship to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Thurman writes in his autobiography that he often had gentle premonitions, deep soul-callings, to engage with people who were in a time of trouble. When he  was 29 years old, just a young, fervent, and fiery preacher talking about justice, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was stabbed in Harlem at a book signing. Thurman felt a deep spiritual need to go to him, to visit with King in the hospital.  During his visit Howard Thurman urged Martin Luther King to take even more rest than the doctor’s prescribed,  he urged him to take 4 more weeks to be exact to reassess his purpose, try to understand his cause, to rest his body spirit and mind, and to find healing.  King did heed his advice, and unique to the rest of his life, adopted a brief time of quietitude, meditation, and stillness. He delivered no speeches, went to no meetings, and did not take up agenda items for the civil rights movement at that time.  After the time had passed, he was re-invigorated towards the cause of the civil rights movement with clear and determined understanding of his purpose and mission within the organization. And the rest as we know, is history. The moment between chaos and creation offered Dr. King a chance to find his own renewal, his own sense of presence in the Spirit.

When one of my students found out that I was preaching a couple of weeks ago they asked , “you are going to use Rilke again, aren’t you?” (I couldn’t tell if she was exacerbated or excited-but I mostly was thrilled she remembered one thing from my previous sermons), so as I have finished up my year-long journey with Rilke as a spiritual guide, I will include him again. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of the human nature to rush and press on despite the need for stillness, despite the need for a space in between, Rilke wrote-

We set the pace.
But this press of time –
take it as a little thing
next to what endures.

All this hurrying
soon will be over.
Only when we tarry
do we touch the holy.

Young ones, don’t waste your courage
racing so fast,
flying so high.

See how all things are at rest –
darkness and morning light,
blossom and book.

I find that our world is plagued with moments of voidless dark, watery abyss, dry wilderness. In the face of an ever-present cultural racism, mass incarceration, Ebola, The recent attacks on a newspaper in Paris, France, and the numerous other tragedies on our screens, in our newspapers, and on our hearts,  -how could we deny the deep and foreboding presence of chaos in our world? Rilke reminds us that we need these moments between chaos and creation, where the Spirit hovers over us, waiting to be pulled in, touched,  embraced, and intertwined with our spirits. When we forget to create this sacred space and time, we can get overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the chaos or overwhelmed by creation. I remember when I first read in the news about the tragic and terrible school shooting in Peshawar Pakistan, where just a few weeks ago, over 140 school children were murdered in an act of terrorism. I saw this picture in a news article of a pair of empty shoes laying on a bloodstained school auditorium floor and I became completely overwhelmed with grief in the chaos of that terrible act. I cried, and thought of all the mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, and of the parent who must have helped to tie those shoes in the morning. I truly felt that I was grieving, and at a loss for our world. I saw the darkness and the voids of abyss and felt overwhelmed.

When I got into my office the next day I had a phone call from a thoughtful and courageous Boston University student, who was from Pakistan and she wanted to organize a vigil, a time for prayer, silence, and presence amidst such atrocity. The student said that in the face of not knowing at all how to cope with this, a vigil seemed ‘just the right thing to do right now.’ So the next night, in the middle of exam week, I gathered with over 50 students-most of which were from Pakistan or had family from Pakistan-and we created that in-between space. A space between the chaos of violence and the creation of hope-it was simple, it was quiet, it was a lit candle, and a tearful prayer, and a lesson on peace from the Q’uran.  I felt so full of the spirit in those moments, so close the brooding bosom of God. I am so grateful to those student leaders who called together for this moment of vigil prayer. I knew that the time for creation would come-the time when I would want to find hope and purpose and ways to help create a sustainable solution for the terror that often plagues our world and our children, but just then-that cold December night just before Christmas-I needed to abandon the chaos, and delay the creation, to exist in the in-between moment of stillness, peace, quiet, solidarity, and prayer to be reminded of how close the Spirit is to us, and how much we can rest in the Divine when we are in need.

This moment in between chaos and creation is not a passive moment, or meant to be seen as a privileged moment of removing yourself from the situation and ignoring the reality of a broken and bleeding world. Rilke’s poem says “only when we tarry do we touch the holy.” The word tarry is not a passive word – but an active verb. It is synonymous with the word Sojourn-to live temporarily. These in-between moments are not places we can stay, but still places where we should actively live. Furthermore, this is not an easy action – holding yourself in this temporary stillness is sometimes more difficult than jumping from chaos to make order.  In this action between the moment of chaos and creation we have the opportunity to be opened up in transformative ways. To tarry in the in-between is not doing nothing, it is doing something. Let the noise subside and in the silence and the stillness be ready for the sound of God, be ready to be found, be ready to be made new, re-created in the truest way. Only from the silence a word is spoken, only from the stillness, is a movement created.

-The Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, University Chaplain for International Students

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Sunday
September 14

Being and Belonging

By Marsh Chapel

Romans 14:1-9, 13

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Please Pray with me: God, you are the great homesickness we can never shake off, the one who urges us to be and tells us that we belong, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight-amen.

Thank you to Dean Hill and the Marsh Chapel staff and community for inviting me to preach this lovely September Sunday. As the chaplain for International students here at Boston University, my heart is overjoyed by the fall chill in the air and the mass of Students walking up and down Commonwealth Avenue in the autumn sunlight-I find it a particular privilege to share my sermonic thoughts with you for the beginning of the school year.

As a Chaplain for International students I am privileged to work with students from all over the world who speak a variety of different languages. This is a particular treat for me-as I love to collect interesting, funny, and intriguing words from other languages. I made friends with a German graduate student last year who taught me three of my new favorite German words that I think are perfectly hilarious and worth sharing with you now: The word in German for ambulance is Krankenwagen-which I think might possibly be the most fun word to shout out loud, and is quite appropriate in a description of the ambulance-as a cranking wagon. Another great German word is Kummerspeck, which in English would translate to stress eating-that instance when you might be sad, anxious, depressed, overwhelmed and then eat too much to compensate-but in German this word literally translates to ‘Grief Bacon’, which provides even deeper meaning to my own life. But the German word that I think is particularly helpful in understanding our letter from the apostle Paul today is fremdscham-we don’t really have an English equivalent of this expression, but it is the notion of being embarrassed for somebody else, and then consequently silently judging them. Perhaps, you hear someone talking loudly on their cell phone on the train about personal matters, or you see someone slopping food down their front unknowingly at a restaurant-you might feel fremdscham towards them. In your mind forms a quiet critique, a passing of concise judgment and a twinge of embarrassment at the things your neighbors are doing.

In our passage today in Romans, we see the apostle Paul addressing a community in conflict. The church in Rome is newly budding and as all new communities form-so do regulations and standards-those regulations and standards are also typically followed by conflict. In the Roman church’s case-Paul has heard hearsay of gossip and judgment towards one another about what they are eating and what days they find it most appropriate to worship. More specifically-some people are eating meat, while others are refusing to eat meat on religious ground, and some choose to keep Saturday as Sabbath while others keep no Sabbath at all. Due to Paul’s more gentle language used in this section of the letter, historical scholars conclude that no harsh physical confrontation has broken out over these disagreements-but there has been a good deal of whispering on these topics:  sly judgment from one group to the other, that critical sense of embarrassment about one’s neighbor-each group in Rome was feeling very fremdschaum towards one another-embarrassed by the other’s unorthodox eating practices and judgmental towards their choices in worship.

Now, I would love to say that this is an ancient ridiculous argument that we have far surpassed today-why bother or fight about what your neighbor Christian is eating? –but unfortunately, similar debates continue today, 2,000 years later. There are still little church scoffs and scuffles about whether to drink grape juice or wine at communion, to eat wafers or pita bread, and in our society there is a robust debate about health style superiority: being vegetarian or eating meat, vegan, paleo etc etc.  Paul identifies that the issue at hand is not solely about food and drink, worship and Sabbath, but it is about judging each other, deeming one’s own group as ‘true’ and the other group as an ‘imposter’.  Each group fears that they are in the wrong, that they are the community at fault, and thus jumps to persuade Paul and other church leaders of their self-righteousness, and correctness. Afraid of being discovered as the ‘imposter group’ in this early development of the church, gossip slowly becomes a battle of wits and slander to create regulations and rules for the community.

This fear of being an imposter, and thus judging others or feeling judged, is rampant in our society, and especially (I would say) on our college campuses at the start of the new school year. Young adults are particularly prone to what is commonly called “imposter syndrome”. I know that I have felt this way numerous times in the past few years, as my life has transitioned. When I was first accepted to Princeton Theological Seminary, I found myself on the first day of orientation standing among the gothic buildings and the ivy and thinking to myself “Everyone is going to find out I am not smart enough to be here.” I fervently scribbled notes about fire drills, codes of conduct, and scholarships during our orientation sessions just to look like I was keeping up and fitting in, in my fear others would discover my true identity-as a Midwestern girl from a tiny school in Iowa who read more fiction and poetry than theology in her undergraduate. And then, in our first chapel service of the year, the campus chaplain, Rev. Jan Ammon, sat down the entire freshmen class and told us all to get over our ‘imposter syndrome’. I had never heard this term before, but she went on to explain. Imposter syndrome is when you live in a constant state of fear that the people around you will find out that you aren’t as great as they think that you are. That you aren’t really smart enough to be at Princeton-or perhaps in your case, BU. That you are the Admissions Office’s big mistake. That you don’t really make enough money to live the lifestyle that your colleagues think you do. That you aren’t as nice as everyone thinks you are, or as thoughtful. That someone might find out that you aren’t as talented an athlete as your reputation leads them to believe. That you aren’t as faithful or disciplined in your spiritual life as you lead others to believe. Or that you don’t work as hard or as fast as others in your office. Most of us deal with this fear each and every day of our lives. We are so afraid of being ‘found out’ for all of our faults and failures, that we occasionally begin to judge others. Like the churches in Rome, we feel tempted to call out the faults of others to mask our own faults, worries, imperfections -to hide the imposter syndrome that we feel in ourselves.  Occasionally, our anxiety of letting our faults be known creates distance between ourselves and our communities, as we feel we are being judged and respond by judging others. This is a vicious cycle that upholds perfectionism and rejects humility, imperfection, and disregards the notion that fault actually creates growth.

I once heard a story about a Catholic Priest named Father Joseph. A new member of Father Joseph’s monastic order once committed a fault. A council was called to determine the punishment, but when the monks assembled it was noticed that Father Joseph was not among them. The superior sent someone to say to him, “Come, for everyone is waiting for you.” So Father Joseph got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water, and carried it with him. When the others saw this they asked, “What is this, father?” Father Joseph said to them, “My faults and imperfections run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the error of another?” When we judge each other in order to cover up for our own imperfections, we are at jeopardy of truly becoming an imposter-instead we are called to acknowledge the worth of all people, accepting others for exactly who they are and encouraging our most authentic selves to be expressed. When we accept and encourage others to be-just who they are-we develop a truly beautiful sense of hospitality and build compassionate communities.

In my first few weeks of Chaplaincy for International students here at B.U. I started an International Student Fellowship Dinner. This was a group for International students to come to feel more connected with each other, to process through all of the adjustments of living to a foreign city, and to create deep and lasting friendships across cultures. Every week, we gather in the lower level of Marsh Chapel and we cook cultural foods together-things that the students miss from home. We’ve had Italian students teach us how to make lasagna, and Taiwanese students teach us how to make miso soup, Indian students teach us how to make a spicy apple curry-and as we eat our comfort foods we talk about what its like to be living in Boston, what our lives are like, the things from home we long for, and the things in Boston we wish we could share with friends and family back home. Attending this group in the middle of the fall semester last year was a young graduate student who was from Nepal and living in the United States for the first time in her life. After her second week in a row of attending International Student Fellowship, she asked if she could speak at the end of our discussion, she said, “I just wanted to thank this group. I was so afraid of saying something wrong or messing up my words, but you made it ok. In the last two hours I have spoken more than I have in my last two weeks of being in Boston.”  That imposter syndrome that our this student had of being ‘found out’ debilitated her from speaking for nearly two weeks- for students in the start of the school year the pressure to be perfect is immense, and it seems that imposter syndrome goes hand in hand with fear of being judged. Luckily, our Nepalese friend was able to shake off that imposter syndrome and find her own voice. She then went on to be the president of her International student Organization in her graduate program and spends her days creating safe spaces for others to talk, try out their voice, discover who they are and feel that they truly belong.

The good news we find in this letter from Paul to Rome is that there is no such thing as an imposter when it comes to God. In Romans 14:3, Paul writes don’t judge each other, who are you to pass judgment? What you should know is that God has already welcomed everyone and God has welcomed us for being exactly who we are. Every single one of us-from the early church in Rome to the people sitting in these pews today-Jew and Greek, meat eaters and vegetarians, people who worship on Saturdays, people who worship on Sundays,–you are welcomed: whether you are southern, northern, western, new Englander, Chinese, Indian, Turkish, Taiwanese, Nepalese, African, Columbian, Mexican, European-you are welcome here, you are not an imposter, you are fully known and accepted for being just who you are. Paul writes that you should simply BE YOU. In everything you are, be authentic, hold true to your values and the goodness and compassion seated within your heart-hold on to that. He writes that we all live and we all die, but as long as we live and die with holiness, with God with truth, with goodness, and with beauty in our hearts then we have the Genuine welling up with in us urging us to be. Just be. My favorite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote a poem about God calling us to be-Rilke wrote, “Live you said out loud, and die you said softly, and over and over and over again you said be.” Just be you, let go of your imposter syndrome and your fear, let go of the temptation to judge yourself against others, let go of your embarrassment-for you have been called over and over again to be.

And in your being-discover that you belong. Paul writes three times in this passage that all are welcome. I want to add to my collection of intriguing words the Greek word that Paul uses for ‘welcome’ here-which comes from the root word Lambano-we only see this word used 11 times in the New Testament and it is so multi-dimensional that the interpretations tend to vary-but they always have the essence of hospitality. Lambano, literally translates to receive or to take in. In the ancient world, there was a formalized system of hospitality for taking people into your home, offering them food, water, but also protection-and thus to welcome somebody was to take them in as one of you, as one of you own clan, as one of your own family. This is the Greek word Paul chooses to describe God’s nature. Amidst the judging, and the fremdscham feelings among these two groups people in Rome, Paul silences the scrapple about food and Sabbath and instead he beautifully makes statements about the character of God. Paul says that whoever you are, be you, be your truest self, and God will lambano-will welcome you-God will take you into gods own family, gods own self and offer you comfort, hospitality, protection-you belong with God and God belongs with you. This is an ultimate gift of belonging and welcome. If there is ever a moment when you feel that you are a stray, a wanderer, an unconnected human being-take comfort! Take rest! God has already welcomed you and made you a part of the holy household of spirit and presence and compassion. You have been taken in, you are not an imposter, you are not alone. God calls you over and over again simply to be and to know that you belong.

Paul challenges the Church in Rome one step further-saying it is now our responsibility to offer that same welcome to others, whether we disagree, eat different foods, speak different languages, etc.-we all belong in the eyes of God, and thus our hospitality should reach out to each person we meet. WE are now destined to share this lambano of god in our churches, in our lives, in our university, in our actions every single day. As God has created a home for us, we too must create a home for others. As the spirit of God lives within and among us-so we belong to one another.  Let us welcome with open arms those who differ from us in culture and lifestyles, let us extend our own hospitality, comfort, and protection in love. Ask a fellow student who is far from home to have coffee with you, invite your neighbor to go to a hockey game, take a long walk on the esplanade with someone you just met, reach out your hand and ask the person next to you what their name is and where they are from, show signs of welcome everywhere you go.  I challenge you, all of you, but especially our Boston University students- As the school year starts, find courage to be You, exactly as you are, and know that you are taken in, you have been received and warmly welcomed by God. Know that you are welcome in Marsh Chapel, feel that you have been welcomed into this house of god by god and let your heart fill up with a sense of belonging.  Know that you are welcome here in Boston University, this is a place for you to thrive, grow, belong, and in turn reach out with open arms of hospitality towards others. Discover who it is that you are, be a part of this compassionate community and then extend your own sense of welcome to everyone you meet. This school year, and every year henceforth may you find the courage to be you and know that you belong.

Amen

-Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, University Chaplain

Sunday
August 10

The Sound of Silence

By Marsh Chapel

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The task before us this summer-the theme-the musings-the rumination is “The Gospel and Emerging Adulthood”. Typically, amongst scholars the emerging adult is classified as a transitioning stage of life that aligns with the ages 18-35. As an emerging adult myself, who is married to another emerging adulthood, with good friends and colleagues all living into emerging adulthood-I find that this topic is profoundly important and near to my heart. Furthermore, in this generation of emerging adults, we find ourselves emerging out of the cusp of the millennial nomination. This is an era that comes with its own unique set of graces and struggles. I, like so many other 18-35 year olds find myself wading through emerging adulthood just trying to make for myself a personal and spiritual home. As an emerging adult, I want to tackle a subject that is not talked about much amongst our generation, and perhaps even the generation before us: Silence. And yes, believe me, I realize the irony in writing a whole sermon-a whole speech-about Silence. But if Simon and Garfunkel can write a song about silence, I figured it was high time for a sermon about it.

I, like many of my peers, have long struggled with silence. Particularly with unplanned silence, as in a silence that wasn’t scheduled for me in prayer, meditation, etc.; but silence that would creep up on me in conversation and make feel almost like I was suffocating under the pressure to find things to say. The elongated pause, the awkward silence, the thoughtful moment would typically make my skin crawl and I would immediately feel the urge to fill the silence with some witty statement or new topic of conversation. Research shows that this cringing feeling amidst silence is not only about me, but is a common trait of many young adults in this generation. We are the generation, after all, that created special hand gestures to alleviate the awkwardness of silence-if you have ever done the “awkward turtle” you know exactly what I am talking about.

And even in the planned silence, we still feel squirmy. I have practiced meditation for nearly 8 years now, and my first teacher-a Buddhist monk from rural Iowa and a big believer in silence-accused me of having a ‘monkey mind’-that whenever the stillness or silence of the moment crept in-my mind would reach out and grab new topics, images, and ideas to fill what I was considering a void. As it turns out-a lot of emerging adults struggle with monkey mind. In our image driven, digital over sharing culture, where there are constant outlets of expression, speech, thought, and opinion-silence is often viewed as a weakness, as a vulnerability, a lack of concern or input; even as a lack of intelligence. We tweet, we post, we instagram, we text, we call, we email, we chat, we share, but do we do silence? It seems that even times for intentional silence is becoming more rare and scarce and the only minute long ‘moments of silence’ we share together is in grieving for loss. For us silence signals sadness, not joy. Silence shows inconsideration, not thoughtfulness. It hasn’t always been this way.

There are reasons for this cultural shift about silence. George Prochnik, in his book “In Pursuit of Silence” shares research that in the current American society-sound signifies a good time. When something is loud, our minds immediately jump to ‘fun’ ‘party’ ‘enjoyment’ etc.  Restaurants are using this research to drum up business-the noisier the place, the more business they get. And even when we attend these riotous restaurants, we fell an immense amount of pressure to shout conversations across the table to each other over the din of sound until our voices go raw. We shout, we laugh, we sing, we converse animatedly to show our interest and delight in community. Noise is constantly surrounding us and defining how we live. Sound through music and movies are now streamlined into our pockets via phones, tablets, and electronic devices that enable us to be immersed in sound from the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we go to bed at night. I myself have formed the bad habit of turning on the radio as soon as I wake up, and falling asleep to the sound of the Jimmy Fallon on my TV at night.

This over exposure to sound is not only bad for your mental and spiritual health, but it an be detrimental to your physical health as well. Prochnik goes on to say in his book that long has over-exposure to sound been associated with hearing loss as many of you know, but newer research states that it also effects your cardiovascular system-your heart. Trying to sleep in a noisy environment (say by listening to the TV or talking a lot before bed) your blood pressure can rise through the night and stay high all day. He also mentions about excessive outside noise that is often unavoidable can also be damaging. Prochnik says that in the United States, “many times subways that haven’t been maintained are already running at a decibel that is dangerous.”-those of you who have ever ridden the MBTA green line through Boylston station can relate to this, methinks.

Furthermore, too much noise can damage our mental and spiritual health. While constantly expressing through words, we often don’t pause for true introspection and discernment. We get so caught up in speech that we can’t even hear ourselves clearly. Emerging adults and our culture at large has been thoroughly steeped in an opinion sharing age, an age that values speaking up, standing up for something, civic activism, speaking truths, poetry and protest in full force. While these are beautiful trademarks of who we are as a culture; I find that the lack of silence makes us lack in many thing-not the least of which is our spirituality and relationship to the Divine. The ancient Egyptian proverb of “speech is silver but silence is golden” is bandied about but do we really find Silence golden? Perhaps our generation would rewrite the proverb to say “Silence is Golden-but Speech is platinum”.  Do we cherish silence anymore and practice it the way we should? Still in our every day lives, more often than not-we choose sound over silence. Why is that? Because for many of us: silence is scary.

In our scripture today of 1 Kings 19:9-18, we see Elijah, a broken prophet, standing on a mountain waiting for God to pass by. At this point in the Elijah narrative, Elijah is running away from his life and his responsibilities-after he demolishes all of the false prophets that belonged to Jezebel, the angered queen sends him a message that she is now coming after him to take his life personally. He is scared, failing at his prophetic duties, feeling alone and abandoned,  Elijah goes and hides in a cave on a mountainside and waits for God to pass by. This great rattling theophany approaches him and Elijah witnesses a great storm with crackling lightning and earthshaking thunder-but he does not find God there; then comes a tumultuous earthquake that shatters rocks and uproots trees-but God is not there; then a roaring fire ignites and consumes the world around him-but still God is not there. Through all of these terrors, Elijah stands firm and waits for a true revelation from the Divine. Finally the scene is enveloped in an eerie and total silence. A silence felt down in the core of your being. A silence that fills up the heavens. This silence is so profound, that over the years Hebrew scholars have struggled to bring it justice in translation-in the KJV it is called ‘the still small voice’, and in other interpretations it is called ‘a soft murmuring’ or a ‘deep silence’. Modern Day Hebrew Scholar, Dr. Choon Seow says that it is so difficult to translate because the phrase is an oxymoron in Hebrew-the literal wooden translation is ‘the sound of fine silence’. God chooses a discourse through the sound of silence.

It is in this distilled silence that Elijah encounters the Lord.  What does Elijah do? He hides. He physically pulls up his mantle-a bit of his cloak-over his face in fear; much like a child may pull the covers over their head in fright. Elijah stood through the storm, through the quake, through the fire, and shutters in the silence-because-silence is scary. In silence we find ourselves vulnerable, disarmed, and naked. In silence we fear that we may not be understood, or perhaps we will not understand. In silence we worry that our innermost expressions will be exposed, and not guarded by our carefully crafted words. Silence opens up in us a sacred space that we are not always familiar or comfortable with.

But the Sacred One comes in the silence-God chooses the mode of discourse-god is not in the fire, the quake or the storm, but God chooses silence to communicate with Elijah in that moment. Though silence may be intimidating, we stand a lot to gain from practicing it. In silence we are offered a chance to examine those vulnerabilities and truths we were once afraid of. We gain insight into ourselves, and introspection into our souls.  In resting in quiet, we become more comfortable with our own vulnerabilities and truths and know ourselves better. WE become less dependent on sound as a protective barrier and embrace self-awareness, which also makes us more accessible to others. Howard Thurman reflected on his need to abandon speech at times and accept silence, he said, “ I abandon all that I think that I am, all that I hope to be, all that I believe I possess. I let go of the past, I withdraw my grasping hand from the future, and in the greatest silence of this moment, I alertly rest my soul.” The silence that surrounds great introspection allows for thoughtfulness and rest.

In silence, we become better listeners and thus better friends-stronger members of our community. Dr. Robert Dykstra, a pastoral care professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and longtime pastor, would often share with his classes a story of what he found to be his most profound moment in pastoral care.  When a fellow faculty member and dear colleague of his lost a spouse during the school year, Dr. Dykstra repeatedly asked if there was anything he could do, if she would like to talk and process, or if he could bring her anything. The faculty member thanked him but refused him every time. Finally, Dr. Dykstra called her up and asked her if she would like him to just come sit in her office in the afternoon-she accepted. Similar to the way that Job’s friends sat with him in silence during his anguish and agony, Dr. Dykstra sat on the floor of her office in complete silence, sometimes grading papers, sometimes drinking tea, or simply sitting-every afternoon for nearly two weeks until his colleague told him she was fine to be on her own again. He never offered advice or verbal comfort, but simply sat in a billowing, comforting, intimate silence. Months later-his colleague told him that through all the grief, casseroles, and weeping conversations, that those afternoon hours in silence and companionship had meant the most to her and offered the most healing. Silence is just good pastoral care, Dr. Dykstra would say, silence makes us better friends and better companions through life.

 

Silence often offers us clarity-provides us a chance to perceive things more clearly. Rainer Rilke, my poet companion this year as many of you know, wrote, “Since I’ve learned to be silent, everything has come so much closer to me.” A few weeks ago I was visiting my parents in Southern Illinois-they live among the great plains and cornfields and deep blue skies wider than the earth itself. My Dad, Husband, our family dog Riley, and I went for a hike through a patch of woods and a prairie land. For the majority of the hike we chattered away about the mosquitoes, where we wanted to go for dinner, how are jobs and lives were going. We got to one point near the center of the field and my Dad called abruptly for 60 seconds of silence. He set a timer and we stood amongst the tall grass and wildflowers in the blossoming silence of the moment and as Rilke said, I did feel that everything was somehow coming closer to me-the smells of the honeysuckle, the buzz of the insects, the deep green of the oak trees.  It is in silence that the things that have become far away from us often return, and we can feel closer to the universe, to our loved ones, and to the sacred presence all around us.

 

In fact, not only in the Elijah narrative, but also all throughout the Scriptures do we see God communicating intimately through the sound of silence. It is often in silence that we can develop a more intimate relationship with the Divine. As Elijah did, we often ask again and again for God to answer us-to hear our prayers and respond in clarity and sound-but sometimes God is the sound in silence. Sometimes God’s silence speaks. God’s silence spoke profound volumes while Elijah stood on that mountain awaiting reprieve, God’s silence in the story of Job defines the entire interaction and discourse that becomes Job’s revelation and foothold for life. God’s silence is just as profound as God’s words. When a young unwed mother gave birth to a savior in the manger, God was silent. When Jesus in agony dies on the cross, God is silent. In these profound moments of silence with God-it does not mean that there is a lack of communication with the Divine. God is sharing in those moments with a chosen discourse of meaningful, intimate silence. God’s silence speaks volumes to us, Gods quieting of our souls is a priceless companionship. God’s silence is an invitation-a deepening-a ripening of one’s own intimate relationship with the Divine. Sufi Poet, Rumi, says “silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.” Sometimes it is in the silent moments that the sound of God is felt deep in our bones.

 

Beloved, we are called to live into this sacred silence. In our emerging adulthood amongst the clatter, twitter patter, and banter of noise, let us make time for silence in our lives. 5 minutes of quiet with a cup of tea in the morning. A prayer and 3 minutes of silence before we sleep at night. 10 minutes of peace as we walk along the Charles River or the Harbor. Do not be afraid, as Elijah was, do not pull your cloak over your face, for God often reaches out in the silence. In the conclusion of his book the “Power of Silence” Prochnik states that nowhere can complete silence be found-even monasteries and Quaker meeting houses have background buzzing, murmurs, subtle noises. We must redefine silence for ourselves, carve it our and shape it in our own lives. When we create for ourselves an intentional silence, quiet space, Prochnik says become injected with ‘the fertile unknown”.  Enter into that fertile unknown and take heart that God is there. Spend a little time in that fertile unknown every single day. Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation. Make yourself a home in the Divine sound of fine silence and may you find holy companionship, insightful clarity, and a dwelling place in the presence of God.

Amen.

~Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, University Chaplain for International Students

Sunday
April 6

A Country Called Life

By Marsh Chapel

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

 

Intro Prayer: Please Pray with me: Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight. Amen.

It is good to be here with you all on this sunny spring morning. I send gratitude to Dean Hill for inviting me to speak this morning at this historic pulpit and many thanks to all of My Marsh Chapel friends and family who have supported me in my new role as the Chaplain for International students here at Boston University.

My husband, Carson, and I moved to Boston in the middle of June with just enough time to be completely enveloped into the Red Sox fandom as they marched towards the world series-which was truly a joy and a blessing and felt like a right of passage into Boston life. However, this means that this past winter has been our first Boston winter. In some ways nearly 5 months of winter, 54 inches of snow, and endless salt foot prints in our front hallway seemed like a rite of passage into becoming a true Bostonian. But many days, especially nearing February and March, I felt as though the winter was never going to end. I felt as though this must be a winter akin to Narnia-endless snows until some sort of curse is lifted; or perhaps Boston was experiencing a 5-year long Game of Thrones style winter. The phrase ‘winter is coming’ was transformed to ‘winter is here-and with a vengeance’.

I began to feel hopeless. When I came into work on especially chilly days, I would ask my colleagues at Marsh when it would all end. I asked practical questions:  how long winter lasted year, when does the snow turn to rain, what happened the year before and the year before, what is the absolute worse-case scenario I need to emotionally prepare myself for? (could there possibly be snow in JUNE?). They were sympathetic and offered me much comfort but my colleagues and friends also assured me that-to this day- there is absolutely no accurate prediction method for New England weather. I yearned for spring as I have never yearned for spring before. I would sit in my favorite chair by the window and read John Keat’s poem “Ode to a Nightingale” and hold onto his phrase ‘oh, for a beaker full of the warm south’. I wondered after all this winter, how could anything possible grow ever again? How could even the strongest seed take root in such frozen soil and live?

Our text for this Sunday is a familiar one-Ezekiel 37:1-14. We have seen this vision many times before-Ezekiel stands amidst a desolate valley of dry bones and prophesies them to life. . This story has become an important part of our religious narrative for centuries. It’s a passage that holds liturgical importance for both Christians and Jews alike.  In the Christian tradition-this passage is featured every year of the 3 year rotation of the Revised Common Lectionary-we use that lectionary here in Marsh Chapel, as do many other Christian churches around the world. The story of the Valley of Dry Bones falls on liturgically important Sundays in this lectionary: This year it falls on the fifth Sunday of Lent, next year it will be the text for the Easter vigil, and the following year it will fall on the Sunday of Pentecost. In the Jewish tradition, Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones falls on Passover every year. This passage is familiar because we come to it every year as winter beckons into spring.  This passage is familiar because each year we are called to it to find new understanding as winter comes to an end.

Before we explore Ezekiel’s prophetic vision, we need to look at the current state of being for the Israelites for whom the vision was originally shared. The Israelites were a broken people suffering from what felt like an eternal winter in their lives. To paint you a picture-6 years before this vision comes to them, the people of Israel had been captured, killed, and enslaved by evil king. Jerusalem, there holy city has been sacked, burned, and invaded. Enslaved and starving, these people feel as though they have broken covenant with God, and will suffer to the end of their days. There homeland, there family, and there lives lay in ruins. John Calvin, our companion through this Lenten season, states that to the Israelites-dispersion, being carried off to Babylon ‘was very much like death’.  We see in this passage in Ezekiel 37:11 a most sorrowful cry, a true lament. The people cry out,

“Our bones are dried up,

and our hope is lost.

We are cut off completely.”

 

In this lament, the people of Israel are not asking for help, they are not asking for God’s forgiveness; they have no request for a sliver of grace-they simply, mournfully accept their dreary existence and commit to the fact they are already dead. Hopelessness seeps in from the very roots of their souls and evolves into life-less-ness. The very notion of life collapses around them. The people of Israel walk on as skeletons without a joy or a song in their hearts. They are in Ezekiel’s desolate valley; they are the dry bones. When in a vision from God, Ezekiel is brought to view this valley of dry bones, it is not an abandoned cemetery, or an elephant graveyard, or a battlefield he sees, but the dry bones themselves are the people of Israel.

We have all experienced these valleys of desperation, these seemingly endless winters. In the United States we live in a culture supports a system where living and life are two completely different things. For instance, we often say ‘we make a living’ as we talk about money; and comment ‘I need to get a life’ as we talk about social interactions. Living becomes something we simply do; are even obligated to do-and life becomes just one possible, probably unlikely outcome of that living.  I myself have fallen into a negative cyclical rotation of living what was not life-and I see so many of my friends and family struggle with the same habitual system:  we get up, go to work, come home, watch TV, go to bed, get up, go to work, come home, watch TV and go to bed. Once in a while a moment occurs where we question whether or not this is really life at all.

Linked to this system, there is a glorification of busy-ness that runs rampant in our midst. Every time someone asks “how are you doing?” we feel the need to reply ‘exhausted. Busy. Stressed. I’ve done so much today. I have so much to do.’ We feel that if we don’t appear busy, we think we don’t appear to be valuable, successful, or whole. We think that if we aren’t busy all the time, we aren’t contributing members to society.   And while these things may be true-we may have a very busy schedule in all reality and have a lot of things on are to-do lists, but we chug along without really experiencing anything, without really living out life. We exist, we work until we are dry bones, we burn out, and we fall into Ezekiel’s valley-where all seems hopeless, it feels like you can never escape from this tedious cycle, and your life has somehow slipped away from you into rote actions and movement created solely out of habit. Sometimes we don’t notice our own shallow valleys, we just keep swimming and feel that everything will be fine someday. Other times we sink into the dry earth of the valley so deeply that the desolation seeps into our spirits and is transformed into deep depression, unhappiness, non-contentment, or listlessness.

I meet with Boston University students every single day of my week, and consistently-at least once a week-I meet with a student who feels so overwhelmed-so incapacitated by busyness and stress at all the things on their to-do list, that they can hardly move; let alone live. I meet with International students who feel like they are just barely treading water to keep up with all the cultural differences, nuances, and systems that they need to embrace to simply keep up with their school work. I see colleagues, friends, and family member who feel plagued in a listless cycle of confounding stress. I’ve found myself in these dark valleys of lifeless living and contention. If you have every found yourself in this valley, you are not alone in this. If you have every found yourself standing amidst these dry bones, know that you are not alone. Thousands of years ago the Israelites found themselves in this dark and dreary place, in the same way we often find ourselves there now. Elie Wiesel, a well-known holocaust survivor, prolific writer, and good friend of Boston University once said about this valley of dry bones-state of being “Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dried bones bears no true date because every generation needs to hear in its own time that this valley exists and that these bones can live again”. Every generation, every culture, every person experiences this valley, this winter. But Wiesel especially notes-that every culture, every generation, every person can live again into a spirit-filled spring.

Dr. Kathryn Pfisterer Darr, a beloved professor of Hebrew Bible at our very own Boston University school of Theology, and one of the leading Ezekiel scholars of our era states that the great hope of this text is that true, fulfilling life is only one breath away. A single breath.  But the difficulty of realizing this hope is that we are so often limited by our own understanding of what our lives can hold, can handle, can truly live out-that our own limitations prevent us from embracing the reality of life-the opportunities we have to live. But God’s understanding, God’s sight and vision are so much greater and wider than we could possibly see. I’m reminded of a tale I once heard while I was living and studying in Tamil Nadu, India. I met a man from the island of Sri Lanka named Jude. One day we began talking about this passage in Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones-we were discussing the limitations of human understanding verses the limitations of God’s vision in the passage. Jude told me this native tale,

“Once many years ago, there were two twins living in a womb. A boy and a girl, who were almost fully-grown. They enjoyed their life, filled with nutrients food, and comfort in the womb. But at times it seemed redundant, dull, and there was no more growing to do. One day, the girl twin said to the boy, “I feel as though there must be more than this. I feel as though there might be something called a mother.” The twin boy retorted “that’s ridiculous-this is all we have. We can see our whole world from here there is no mother. There is nothing else.” A few days later the twin girl spoke again, “I really am starting to believe that something is holding us, caring for us, that we are inside a great mother.” The twin boy replied, “there cannot be a mother, we have lived like this our whole lives-there is nothing else.” But the baby twin girl remained convinced and held onto the belief that something was beyond her limits of understanding, and the mother understood things she could not. Little did they know that at any moment these two twins could be born, into a completely new and different world and would be transformed by it. God shares this same wider understanding with Ezekiel and the entire populace of Israel becomes reborn and transformed in new understanding.

Ezekiel stands before a valley filled with dry bones and God asks, ‘can these bones live?’; wisely, Ezekiel affirms that God’s understanding is wider and bigger than his own and says “only you know, O God.” With that, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to these bones to make them live. As Ezekiel does this, bones are joined with bones, sinews re-grow, flesh clings and thrives-miraculously these bodies are re-membered. In his prolific Institutes, John Calvin states that this vision corrects the unbelief of the people-previously the people of Israel, much like us, believed that they were too far out of God’s reach. Too far gone. The importance of Ezekiel 37 to Calvin is to prove that this is always and forever an incorrect assumption, that we are indeed never beyond the reach of God’s restoration. God is more extensive than they could possibly imagine. They are made whole, the people of Israel are restored to fully human form-not just a slave, or a lost soul, or a skeleton, but fully flesh. God breathes into these people of the valley and they are given breath, spirit, true life. The Hebrew term for breath here is ruac’h-a familiar word meaning breath that we have witnessed many times before. We saw God breathing life into Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:7, much in the same way we see God breathing that same breath of life here in the Israel people after years and years of exile and torment. God is still breathing today into us and beckoning us into the Country Called Life.

This year I have been undertaking a spiritual discipline of reading poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke every morning. Rilke is a prolific German and Dutch poet whose insights I find to be just as poignant and personal now as they were a hundred years ago when he wrote them. Rilke and I have been on a journey together this year, and I feel as though he is teaching me more fully how to live, and especially how to live in the presence of the Sacred. His poem “Go to the Limits of Your Longing” aptly brings forward the hope restored in Ezekiel. The poem reads:

 

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,

Then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,

Go to the limits of your longing,

Embody me.

Flare up like flame

And make big shadows I can move in

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going.

No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the Country called life..

You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

 

We are often called out beyond our recall-called to do more than we can handle. We are beyond our recall when we fill our lives with busy-ness and meaningless motions. At times it seems all we can do is to just keep going. But we are called by the Divine Sacred spirit of God to go to the limits of our longings, to experience every single thing: beauty and terror. When we choose to live we embody the compassion, peace, justice, and spirit of the holy. We can flare up like flames and dance in the fire of life.

Friends, just as surely as today is a spring day-55 degrees and sunny, so your life is only a single breath away, your life is one moment with God’s imbibing spirit away. You are offered the same restoration of the Israelites-the chance to live-to truly live; to step out of the monotonous motions and into a season of spring full of life, full of the spirit of God. Through our endless Boston winter, seeds still have taken root; they are growing and living despite the frozen earth. We have been in the valley of dry bones; we have lingered there, suffered there, but nearby is the country called life.  When we breathe, may we breathe the breath of God and we move into life. May we go forth into this spring seeking out life in the fullness of the spirit. Amen.

Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, University Chaplain for International Students

Sunday
January 12

Revive, Renew, Respond

By Marsh Chapel

 Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Good morning, I want to especially extend my gratitude to Dean Robert Alan Hill for the opportunity to preach this morning, from such a historic and meaningful pulpit. I also want to send lots of love and thanks to all the Marsh Chapel staff for supporting me, encouraging me, and growing with me in my first year of working in marsh Chapel as the chaplain for International Students. And I also want to thank all of you, in the pews before me, and in the radio listenership, for journeying with me on my maiden voyage of preaching Marsh Chapel. While I have preached many times before, each pulpit brings something new, and I am happy to share these next few moments in relationship with you.

 

**Please pray with me:

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be compassionate and acceptable in your sight. Amen.

 

 

According to a Gallop poll, the top 3 New Years Resolutions in 2014 were as follows: 1. lose weight/get fit. (no surprise there) 2. get organized. 3. save more/spend less. While I have long since given up hope on holding fast to a new years resolution for a whole year-my resolutions in the past have not made it past the month, let alone the year; I find myself falling pray to these same notions each January as we begin a new year with new resolves and goals. Just this past week, you can ask my poor husband Carson, I felt the urge to move around every single piece of furniture in my apartment, to renew the space and to get more organized. As human beings, renewal is a crucial part of our existence, we are constantly trying to re-create ourselves, find new meaning, and develop new goals. When we are renewed, we are often revived, which hopefully will lead us to respond.

 

Epiphany: On the Christian Liturgical Calendar, we have entered into a time of Epiphany. As Rev. Soren Hessler noted last Sunday in his sermon, Epiphany occurred this past Monday, when we imagined and remembered the magi traveling far and wide to find a baby in a manger, and in a whirlwind moment of realization they are struck with the knowledge that this is no ordinary child-but the Christ, god among us. This is the Magi’s epiphany.   In one of my favorite movies, the 1993 film, ‘Hook’, it retells a story of an adult peter pan returning to Neverland to save his children. A Character in this movie is a bumbling pirate, a first mate named Mr. Smee. Mr. Smee has a similar moment to these Magi when he realizes something crucial about the plot. He shouts to Captain Hook: “I’ve just had an apostrophe!”  Hook responds, “I think you mean an epiphany, Mr. Smee.” Smee says “Lightning has just struck my brain.” Hook retorts, “Well, that must hurt.”

While comical, there is something honest in this statement. Sometimes this season of Epiphany strikes us suddenly that we scramble to figure out what to do. During Advent we have a clear narrative path that leads us to the manger; and during the upcoming season of Lent we have a clear narrative path that leads us to the cross; and we often overlook the importance of this transition period that is Epiphany. Epiphany is truly a gift. We are given a mere 7 Sundays, just shy of 2 months, to explore the early life and ministry of Jesus.

While studying at Princeton Theological Seminary, I had a Systematic Theology professor who told us one day as we were studying the early church creeds, that in the Nicene Creed- while it states so much about the make-up spiritually and physically of Christ and beautifully tells the tale of the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ, all we see of Jesus’ life in ministry in the Nicene Creed is a comma. A grammatical comma.  As many of you are familiar, part of the creed states:

 

“For us and for our salvation

He came down from heaven:

by the power of the Holy Spirit

He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,

and was made man (COMMA),

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

He suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again

In accordance with the Scriptures…. (etc etc).”

 

Epiphany is for us an expansion of that comma. A chance to renew our common faith by reflecting on Jesus’ servant ministry and finding ways to respond with compassionate hearts likewise.

 

Baptism Sunday: It is then no coincidence that the Revised Common lectionary pairs this first Sunday of Epiphany with Christ’s Baptism. In fact, on the wider Christian calendar this Sunday is more commonly known as “Christ’s Baptism Sunday.” We enter into a new season liturgically, just as Jesus enters into his new ministry. In the book of Matthew, this baptismal scene between Jesus and John is a marker of the beginning of Christ’s teaching, healing, loving ministry. Baptism has long been associated with renewal and Jesus seeks out John to be renewed by this ritual cleansing in the river Jordan.

 

But something strange happens as Jesus approaches John to be baptized; John initially refuses, recognizing that Jesus is the superior in ministry, and instead John requests to be baptized by Jesus instead. The situation is, in a word, awkward. I heard a sermon once from a great preacher titled “The problem of baptism” and he cited this moment as being awkward, messy, problematic. We still struggle with baptism in many ways today, 2,000 years later- even as the ritual has been practiced in various forms in the Christian church for years and years-we still approach the topic cautiously. With Jesus and John it was ‘who should baptize who’, but in our current context we often hear debates on ‘infant baptism verses adult baptism’, ‘anointment or no anointment’, ‘immersion, or a sprinkling’, and so on and so forth.  The gist is: baptism has always been a bit messy. But there is real truth and beauty to this very statement. To be renewed through the waters of baptism does not mean that your life becomes perfect, pure, or you are set on a straightforward path of faithfulness. In the past, we have often associate the renewal of baptism with perfection-with becoming whole and having all the answers.

But the so called ‘problem’ with baptism is that when you come up from the water, whether a baby or adult, whether sprinkled or immersed-you are renewed into a beautiful mess. You begin a long and complicated journey of learning who God is, what it means to live faithfully, how to exist in community, how to grow into your Christian identity. Even after Jesus baptism he acquires some bumbling disciples who mess up a lot, and he enters into a complex life of ministry-which is sometimes difficult, problematic, and awkward. But it is still a renewal-and your renewal into this messy Christian life is complex but so worthwhile. This renewal is rewarding, and full of surprises, but that does not always mean that it will be easy, or perfect, or pure. Like Smee’s epiphany-renewal sometimes hurts.

 

A few years ago, as a newly ordained minister, I spent a portion of my year serving as a volunteer for the World Service Corps, a non profit organization that sends volunteers into foreign service to help people in need and learn about culture. I lived with a spear fisherman and his family in New Caledonia, a tiny tropical island between Tahiti and New Zealand. There, I learned to eat fish for breakfast lunch and dinner every day, I presided over my first communion table, and spent most of my time establishing an after school program for local under-privileged children that still continues today. The island as a whole spoke a variation of French and local Melanesian languages.

When I first arrived, I had very, very basic understanding of French and could do no more than order a ham sandwich, but even sometimes my pronunciation was so bad I sometimes got chicken. Thus, during my first few weeks of running this after school program we played a lot of  ‘red light, green light’-because it only required my knowledge of 3 french words: lumiere rouge, and lumiere vert. We would open up our school program by playing red light green light with the children on a little strip of land, which was mixture of gravel and rough grass behind the facility.  At one point, a little boy, no more than 4 years old ran so hard that he slipped and fell onto the gravel and scraped up his knee. He started to scream and cry and wail, and the other children were startled and backed away.

I scooped him up quickly and took him inside, I cleaned him up and got a Band-Aid for his knee, but he was still weeping so violently. I tried talking to him, “where does it hurt”, “are you ok?” “what do you need”, trying to figure out what else I could do to help him. But the language barrier was steep, and my pitiful French was getting us no where. His eyes full of tears, he just looked up at me and continued to wail. I gave up on the words, and moved towards him and just wrapped him up in my arms, kissed him on the head, on the cheeks, on his scraped knee and hugged him tight. Almost immediately, he stopped crying. I was bewildered. Astonished, I let go of him, and he smiled, looked up at me and said: “All new”.  I think he meant all better, or good as new. But ‘All new” made sense to me too. What started out as an uncomfortable, stressful, awkward moment turned into a beautiful renewal. The beautiful mess of living a faithful life leads to these incredible epiphany moments of renewal.

Another important guide for us during this epiphany season is the prophet Isaiah. In today’s lesson Isaiah addresses the people of Israel and calls them forth to be revived. Often when we are seeking renewal, trying to change and become newer and better, we find revival-a new sense of sustainment, a new call or purpose. In Isaiah 42, Israel is facing an identity crisis. They have been exiled, tortured, abandoned, homeless, starved, and much worse. They are coming out of the hard times and slowly edging there way into the good times-but they aren’t sure who they are anymore; the people of Israel struggled to find a sense of purpose, a sense of call. Isaiah, in a prophetic song calls out to them to become servants of peace. They are given a new identity to bring forth light to the nations, to bring forth justice, and teaching without burning a wick or breaking a reed. Israel is a revived in a renewed identity to become examples of peace and justice in the world.

 

In the Matthew passage, as we all know, John does finally consent to baptize Jesus. Jesus affirms that it is righteous for John to baptize him. And as Jesus comes out of the River Jordan, renewed, the Spirit of God in the form of a dove descends and a voice from heaven states, ‘this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’. The people present, including John himself, feel revived in there faith. Much like the Israelites, they are given a new identity. They have a new purpose to become bearers of that good news of that peace and to follow Jesus and his ministry throughout their days.

 

Once Israel has been renewed and revived, once Jesus has come up from the baptismal waters renewed and revived, both respond in acts of humility, acts of service and acts of compassion. Jesus leaves the River Jordan and goes to begin a ministry of healing, teaching, and preaching. Israel following these prophetic songs from Isaiah, becomes a peaceful people sharing the joy of the Lord with all of those around them.

We have a lot of guideposts in our society when we look in the world that show us what it means to RESPOND. For me, one of those guide posts is Albert Schweitzer. Albert Schweitzer was a great theologian and peace activist in the 1930’s-1960’s. Schweitzer was constantly looking for new and active avenues for peace; he even worked closely with Albert Einstein to find ways to stop nuclear warfare. Albert Schweitzer received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 for his work.  When he got off at the train station in Switzerland to receive his award, he was overwhelmingly met by a great crowd of people. Reporters swarmed him with cameras and questions.  Noted officials, politicians, and admirers all stepped forward to shake his hand and speak with him. He stood on the platform smiling, and held up his finger and said “Please, excuse me, I only need one moment”.  He walked over to the edge of the train station where an elderly woman was struggling with her two large suitcases. He picked them up for her and carried them across the platforms until she found her train and helped her stow them before returning to the crowd and apologizing for his delay. A reporter who was there wrote in his article, “that was the first time I ever really saw a sermon walking.” Albert Schweitzer, in that moment and through much of his life-chose to respond.

 

As we move through this season of Epiphany, and through the New Year beginning this month, my challenge to you is that you take your moments of renewal and of revival and respond to the world around you.

Israel seeks renewal and begs the prophet Isaiah for a song, in this prophet’s song Israel is revived and called to be a people of peace and justice. Israel responds by living out lives of compassion, conducting acts of peace, and offering justice to all. Jesus seeks renewal at the waters of river Jordan and in the arms of John the Baptist. In his baptism, he is revived into the servant teacher, minister, and prophet that we have come to know. Jesus leaves the Jordan ready to respond to the needs of the world around him. He heals the hurting, uplifts the broken, frees the captive, and loves the needy. We have a chance to make Christ’s life more than a comma this year-we can actively care for the hungry, support the broken, work for the justice and freedom of captives, share peace with those in conflict, and share love and compassion with every single person who comes into our life this year.

We have been renewed through our baptism, through reflecting on Jesus’ baptism today and by coming into the natural renewal of a New Year. We have been revived in living through this beautiful mess of Christian life and in walking alongside Jesus as he teaches, preaches, and blesses us through this season of Epiphany. Let us take these gifts of renewal and revival and respond to the world around us.

 

 

I was privileged just a couple weeks ago to participate in a Christmas eve noon service in this very chapel. We lit all of the advent candles, sang some of my favorite Christmas hymns, and celebrated the imminent coming of Christ’s birth with the Eucharist. In closing, Dean Hill read a poem titled ‘The Work of Christmas’ by Howard Thurman. The poem goes:

 

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among siblings,
To make music in the heart.

 

My friends, the kings and the princes have gone home and the shepherds are back with there flock. But Christ has been baptized and is moving forward in love to offer ministry and healing to all. Israel has been called to be a servant people of peace and prophetic joy. The work of Christmas has begun for us. As we journey into this new year, and into this new season of Epiphany, let us also be called into our season of renewal with a sense to Respond.

Through Christ we are renewed, through our faithful life in loving community we are revived, and in the work of Christmas we can respond. This is our epiphany. Amen.

~The Rev. Brittany Longsdorf,

University Chaplain for International Students

 

 

Resources

 

Nicene Creed translation taken from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

“Messing People Up”, sermon by Rev. Dr. Alison Boden, Princeton University. January 11th, 2009.

Commentary on Isaiah 49:1-7, by Rev. Dr. Amy Oden. Workingpreacher.org. January 5th, 2014.

Commentarys used for Research: New Interpreters Bible Series, World Commentary Bible Series, New Oxford Bible Commentary, Harper Collins Study Bible Notes, and Anchor Bible Dictionary.