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A House Divided

Sunday, June 10th, 2018

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Preface

            Driving west on Route 90 you may have seen the new billboard which honors Abraham Lincoln, and extols civility, and quotes today’s lesson, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand’.  The billboard makes it seem that President Lincoln coined the phrase, but, as you know, he did not.  This is Jesus’ word, entering the world of conflict and tragedy, denying any part in Satan’s divided household, and claiming to have, like a wily  thief, entered that house, and trussed up the strong man Satan, and conquered him in apocalyptic fury.   Jesus’ family calls him crazy.  Jesus’ disciples discard his teaching.  Jesus opponents set religious rhetoric on fire to condemn him.  All within syllables of the disciples themselves being named.  His ministry begins in a whole heap of trouble, in this third chapter of St. Mark.

Mark

            We know not who wrote Mark, only his name.  He wrote for a particular community, whose location and name are also unknown.  He even mentions by name members of his church, Alexander and Rufus(15:21).  The book is meant to help a community of Christians.  It is written to support and encourage people who already have been embraced by faith.  While it purports to report on events long ago, in the ministry of Jesus in 30AD, its main thrust is toward its own hearers and readers forty years later in 70AD. So it is not an evangelistic tract and it is not a diary and it is not a biography and it is emphatically not a history.

            You will want to know what we can say, then, about Mark’s community.  If the community gave birth to the gospel, and if the community is the primary focus of the gospel, and if the community is the gospel’s intended audience, you would like to know something about them. For one thing, the community is persecuted, or is dreading persecution, or both.  Jesus suffered and so do, or so will, you.  This is what Mark says.  This gospel prepares its hearers for persecution.  For another thing, the church may have been in or around Rome, or more probably somewhere in Syria.  It is likely that Mark was written between 69 and 73 ce.  For yet another thing, Mark’s fellow congregants, fellow Christians, are Gentiles, in the main, not Jews.  He is writing to this largelyGentilegroup.  He writes for them neither a timeless philosophical tract nor an ethereal piece of poetry.  His is rather a ‘message on target’.  It is the preaching of the gospel. Further, Mark’s composition, editing, comparisons, saying combinations, style and Christology all point to Mark as the earliest gospel (J Marcus).

            We have used the word gospel. You have heard the word many times, and know that it means ‘good news’.  It is an old term.  You could compare it to ‘ghost’.  Gospel is to good news as ghost is to spirit, you might say.  Yet Mark calls his writing a ‘gospel’.  He creates something new.  Mark is a writing unlike any other to precede it.  It is not popular today any longer, no longer fashionable, to say this. It is however true.  Mark is not a history, not a biography, not a novel, not an apocalypse, not an essay, not a treatise, not an epistle.  Examples of all these were to hand for him.  Mark might have written one of any one of them.  He did not.  He wrote something else and so in form, in genre, gave us something new.  A gospel.  His is the first, but not the last.

           

Mark 3: 20

             In particular, we have entered a very strange gospel land this morning, in the reading of our gospel, Mark 3: 20.  Call it the landscape of apocalyptic.  Jesus is beside himself.  There is mention of a certain Beelzebub.   The teaching has recourse to a parlor debate about demons, and the prince of demons.  Jesus refers to their, the demons’, casting out. One wonders—don’t you?—about the binding up of a strong man.  We have frightening words about the end, about blasphemy, about forgivenessof all sins (hurray!), except for one, the sin against the Holy Spirit (not helpfully defined, and, by the way, (boo hoo!). Here is an unclean spirit.  There are family members disdained.  Jesus enters ministry in blistering conflict with his own followers, with his religious debating partners, and with his own family.  Friends, Scribes, and Family have this in common:  conflict with Jesus Himself.  That is, Jesus is an apocalyptic preacher, announcing the coming of the end, the turn of the ages.  We can be sure of very little about the historical Jesus, but we can be sure of this.

            In fact, the point of the oddly arranged set of sayings, is that Jesus has arrived to shift the world from the old age to the new age.  He has brought the end of the old and the start of the new.  He has set his standard on the field of battle, and having done so, as Divine Power, he has in effect already won the war.  Hence, disciples are to be disciplined.  Hence, family, when in revolt, is to be discredited and rejected.  Hence, and especially, the old religion is to be transformed.   All, that is every and all, sin is finally forgivable, with various modes of atonement.  But full on, flat out opposition to what is good in favor of what is not, to what is life in favor of what is death, to what is holy in favor of what is hellish, to what is spirit in favor of what is emptiness—this is by definition not forgivable, the sin against the Holy Spirit.  Forgiveness is yours as long as you do not deny the reality of forgiveness. If you do, by definition, you go unforgiven.  If there is no forgiveness, for anyone anywhere at any time, then, again, by definition, there is none for you.  There are none so thin as those who will not eat.

            We are not the first age to hear and to see lived out the extremities of familial, religious, and cultural enmity.  Our house and our houses, across the lower 48 and beyond, may well be divided.  But division we did not invent.

 

A House Divided

            Across these years of division, a time of humiliation, and a time taste testing a sort of fascism, and so fully in need of Samuel’s warning about having a king (‘you want a king’, says Samuel, ‘then you shall have one, and with him much misery’) we too, like Jesus with his followers and Jesus with his sagacious opponents, and Jesus with his family, will enter conversation, discussion, discourse.  To do so with grace, with both honesty and kindness, is a grave but unavoidable challenge.   At least, so engaged, we might do well to be true to our own, actual experience.  If we can honor our own lived experience, with some authentic recollection, then we may have a better chance to engage that of others.   Here is one example.

            A few weeks ago a mildly conservative columnist, whose work otherwise one often appreciates, wrote broadly of ‘tens of millions of Americans’.   He was referring to middle America—red, smaller town, rural, fresh water, America, and trying to explain why we have the divisions we do.  He wrote, ‘tens of millions of Americans rightly feel that their local economies are under attack, their communities are dissolving, and their religious liberties are under threat’, and went on to encourage attention to social problems.  (David Brooks, NYT, 4/18).

            Our experience, across ten pulpits, and four decades in ministry, years of upbringing and happy experience in the areas he is trying to describe, is the opposite.   Most of our upbringing and of our ministry was invested in red, smaller town, rural, fresh water, America.  Here is an afternoon spent planning a stewardship campaign riding on the back of a tractor.  Memory carries the happiness of calling in the barns at milking time.  There is an evening spent listening to vocation and job choices at the kitchen table.  One morning visit offered the chance to learn the family history of a middle sized tool and die company, in a small city.  After the committee meeting there was time to hear the history of a once prosperous manufacturing and imaging company.  This was a life in ministry spent seeing the seasonal rhythms of seed time and harvest, of the first day of trout fishing season and the last day of deer hunting season.  Bluntly put, I hardly met a Democrat, before I went to college, and in the succeeding years our churches were largely colored red. 

            Our friend was right to encourage robust attention to social problems.  In the rest of this paragraph he is mistaken.  “Tens of millions” of Americans in red, smaller town, rural, fresh water America are not living as if under economic attack.  In our own lived multi-decade experience they are, rather, sturdily and steadily enduring the unstoppable shift to a fully global economy, with courage and creativity and long-suffering.  With some little exception, our current national divisions are not welling up out of the angers of licensed nurses, truck drivers, farmers, school teachers, plumbers and firefighters. Here is our experience, to the contrary.  Here is a north country farmer putting livestock and machinery to auction and becoming an electrician, with courage and grace.  Here is the grandson of a family company, suddenly globalized, becoming a photographer.  Here is a middle-manager in a down-sizing corporation taking retirement and doing what he always loved, being with children, and driving a school bus.   One hopes that their religious formation in the Methodist tradition that celebrates itineracy, moving about on the planet, gave some support, some wind beneath the wings.   Further, “tens of millions” of Americans are not whimpering about the loss of community. With some little exception, our house is not divided because den mothers and choir directors across the near mid-west think their communities are dissolving.  They do not and they are not.  They are busy and faithful in their service to neighbor and divine, as much as ever, and not dawdling around whining about ‘dissolving communities’.  Nor are “tens of millions’ of Americans hand wringing about religious liberty.  With some little exception, the people in our lived experience, in our five rural churches, our two college town churches, our two smaller city churches are not wailing and bemoaning that their religious liberties are under threat:  the Johnson Amendment has been used exactly ONCE since its 1954 inception (in a Binghamton NY case involving Operation Rescue of all places and groups).  No.  There is more religious liberty and religion in rural, small town, agricultural, America than there is pretty much anywhere else, and people know it, and people are glad for it.  There is not a lot of rural whooping about selling cakes or not for gay weddings.  No.  ReadHillbilly Elegy as often as you like:  it is still inaccurate as a broad brush description, as beautifully written and as true as it may be in the singular narrative, if our own lived experience in ministry is any guide. Not economic attack, not communal demise, not religion falling away.  These sorts of mis-descriptions caricature good people in false ways.  They wrongly and unnecessarily denigrate the faithfulness and courage of many of our siblings, cousins, compatriots, and fellow citizens.  If we are going to find a way toward common hope, we will need to do so, from red to blue and blue to red, unencumbered by and unshackled from, such falsehoods.  Across this summer, and into this autumn, we will need everything we can muster to speak a word of faith in pastoral voice, toward a common hope:  a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope.  If we can honor our own lived experience, with some authentic recollection, then we may have a better chance to engage that of others.

            Speaking of common hope, and speaking of a pastoral voice, we conclude with a breakfast scene from fifty years ago.   

Bobby

            June 5 1968 began with the usual commotion in our Methodist parsonage.  Two younger sisters and one younger brother, arranging books, breakfast, the day’s plans.  Pancakes and argument and some humor.  One mother overseeing the relative chaos.  I, hoping to be ready, for once, when friends arrived to walk together to school.

            That spring I had gained a fervent connection, at age 13, to Robert F Kennedy.  For some reason I strongly and emotionally engaged with him, our Senator then in the Empire State, and with his campaign as it unfolded. For one thing, there was a common hope therein (yes, borrowed from G.B. Shaw):  some people see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say why not.  My father supported another candidate, but was willing to respect a different, my own, point of view. Earlier in the year I remember sitting with him, watching President Johnson, jowly and bespectacled, telling us through the grainy black and white TV that he would not run.  Just before Johnson said it, my Dad said, “he’s going to do it, he’s going to drop out…”  (He was after all a graduate of BUSTH, the school of the prophets.)  Less fully, I remember the announcement of Martin L King’s death, and only later heard RFK’s words from that night, words in eloquence and care of a heavenly sort.  No, I was busy with eighth grade. Eighth grade in a still new school system was all consuming.  I still had not finished raking the lawn across the street that I had contracted to do in the fall, the deal being with a member of our church,  a kindly, patient pediatrician.  There was a decision to make about a dance coming up—I remember feeling odd and uncertain about that.  I spent my time on homework, scouting, sports, and friends, to the extent I had located some.

            But there was also RFK. It was many years later until I heard the tape of his Indianapolis speech, late at night, bringing tragic tidings to hundreds gathered, black and white, on the night of King’s murder.  I use the tape in teaching.  Aeschylus, Scripture, his own loss, all rolled into a plea for calm.  To those of you who may be tempted to anger and vengeance tonight, I can say that I had a brother whom I lost… What we need in this country nowWhat we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

            My dad was in Chicago that week, June 5 1968, for some long forgotten denominational meetings.  It was 7am our time, so 6am his.  The phone rang, and after a brief word with mom, he asked to speak to me, which was a little odd for that hour.  He wanted me to know, and to tell me himself, that early that morning in California RFK too had been shot and killed.

            He sensed how much that news would grieve me, though we still have yet fully to  sense how much his loss cost us.  Maybe at an unconsidered, sixth sense level, dad wanted to prevent any unnecessary cynicism, on my part, or hardened bitterness, that might sprout up, and of which there already was plenty abroad.  Mostly, he was trying to be a good dad.  And he lived and worked without every forgetting the humble grace, the quiet power of a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope.

            Fifty years later. I partly appreciated the call, then. I really appreciate it now.  Fifty years later.

The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

Heart and Voice

Sunday, June 3rd, 2018

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1 Samuel 3:1-20

2 Corinthians 4:5-12

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Heart and Voice

Goodness is close at hand.  Goodness is close to you.  Goodness is not far, not out of reach, not gone, not gone forever.  Goodness, what makes life liveable, and godly, is within reach.  Are you ready to reach out and receive?

Goodness is right close at hand, even when we do not see her.  Even when the days bristle with ugliness, with mendacity, with the lack of virtuous example in leadership, with a willingness to use ugliness, mendacity and lack of virtue to hurt and maim by what we say and what we do.  This is the clue to the long reading from Samuel, wherein all looks bleak for the ancient Israelites:  but goodness has not quit the field just yet.  Eli will be chastened, but there will be heart and voice, still.  In Samuel.  This is the clue to the beauty of Psalm 139, wherein should we even travel to heaven, to hell, to uttermost parts of the sea, even there goodness will find us, the right hand will guide us, the light will shine in the darkness.  Are you at a point to listen, and then to notice, and then to abide in goodness?  This is the clue to the choicest of Pauline passages, 2 Cor.  What a shame that we do not always know and hear the Holy Scripture for what it is:  Holy. True and loving, honest and kind. We are indeed cast down.  But not forsaken.  Not driven to despair.  Is that not a good reason, goodness knows, to bestir yourself and come Sunday come to church? There are many reasons not to worship, but far more to get up and come your hair and come to church.  Goodness is lurking, waiting, watching, reaching out, ready with a helping hand for you.  This is the clue to Mark 2, and the debates about Sabbath.  Sabbath is good.  What heals the human heart and lifts the human voice is goodness.  Good that gets in the way of goodness is not good, like religion that gets in the way of God is not godly.  Behold the strange, beautiful, saving, powerful, loving world of the Bible, the good book.

Goodness is close at hand.  Goodness is close to you.  Goodness is not far, not out of reach, not gone, not gone forever.  Goodness, what makes life liveable, and godly, is within reach.  Are you ready to reach out and receive?

 

Heart and Mind

 The paper carried a story last week about a woman who was found out by goodness. (NYT, 5/25/18).  Goodness saved her as goodness can do.  Maybe at home.  Maybe in holy communion.  Maybe in prayer.  Maybe in the meandering melody of a summer sermon.

Her name is Louise Penny.  She is a Canadian crime novelist.  For those of us with a little Raymond Chandler roving  the back roads of our imaginations, she is a companion, compatriot, confrere, an ‘unfailingly cheery detective writer’, centered on Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, hero of her 13 books.  In the writer’s house is a throw cushion with the words ‘goodness exists’.

At age 46, she had written not a single book.  In fact, her life was hanging by a thread.  She was depressed and lonely, and had turned to alchohol for self-medication.  She said: ‘Gnawing loneliness, self-loathing, fear…I know what it is like to hate yourself so much  that you have to murder yourself.  Coming out on the other side gave me a profound belief that goodness exists’.

How did she get out?  All of our churches have been winsomely populated and supported by many who found goodness in the way she did.  First, she found community, in her case, Alchoholics Anonymous.  Every one of our churches has had a group meeting of this or similar sort.  Second, she found a friend, actually a doctor who later became her husband.  Friendship is a rare gift in life, sometimes only touched like the hem of a dress passing by.

Encouraged by community, encouraged by friendship, Louise Penny started to do what she loves and to love what she does.  Do what you love and love what you do. She writes spell binding crime novels set in a little Quebec village.  She said: ‘My books are love letters to Quebec’.  One preacher said his sermons are ‘love letters to New England’. Friend:  right here, close at hand, in the pew and in the nave, there is community for you and there is friendship for you.  Community. Friendship.  Don’t take only the preacher’s word for it, or only the church’s witness to it, or only the religious longing for it.  People like Ms. Penny have found it, along the struggling path of life, in community and in friendship.  We pause to ask you a question, speaking of heart:  have you made space enough in life, your life, your one and only life, for community and friendship?

Heart and Service

Goodness is close at hand.  So close, so close that if it were a snake it would bite you.  Plain as nose on your face, and plainer still, plain as the nose on my face.  Why it is right here, all around us.  Yes, right here, for a moment, we pause to give thanks, right here, right now for some of the goodness here at Boston University.  You know, healthy good institutions really matter, and where by heart and voice, in heart and service, we see goodness, we want to name it, to claim it, to celebrate it.

President Brown said this spring: Boston University is an institution with a long history of outreach and engagement.  (President Robert A. Brown, 3/12/18.)

President Merlin said in 1923: Boston University lives in the heart of the city, in the service of the city. (President Lemuel Merlin, 1923.)

One deeply embedded value and strength of Boston University, today, and found in every school and college is this long (1839) history (Methodism) of outreach (heart) and service (in the world, for the world).  Goodness.

The three medical campus schools lead the way with care for the urban poor (MED), with daily recognition that public health means social justice (SPH), and with the most global student body of any school or college at every commencement (GSDM).

All fourteen schools on the Charles River campus show the shadows and lingering long-term influence of heart and service.

Reflect on the current emphasis in Questrom upon ethical business and business ethics.

Remember the School of Education’s 25-year commitment to the Chelsea city schools, but also ongoing delightful efforts like their work in literacy through the 20 years of gift to urban school children through BUILD (Boston University Initiative on Literacy Development), and the outreach to Boston Public Schools so strongly enhanced by the Wheelock merger.

Rejoice at the concept of ‘citizen artist’, the ‘social artist’, affirmed at the College of Fine Arts, the best of theater and music and visual art, brought to the street level (along with the Arts Initiative).

Reflect on the curricular and co-curricular engagement in the School of Theology, with current issues like race, gun violence, immigration, and poverty, the ongoing voice of ‘The School of the Prophets’. 

Remember the School of Social Work engagements with neighboring hospitals and schools, in internships and partnerships.

Rejoice at the ongoing vitality within Metropolitan College of a now veteran program in prison education.

Reflect on the Engineering School support for Women in Science, Math and Technology, and the Inovation Lab for a better world.

Remember the School of Hospitality emphasis on servant leadership.

Rejoice at the communal nature of education at the College of General Studies, modeling dimensions of shared learning and living with great effect.

Reflect on College of Arts and Sciences and its birth of the PARDEE School, committed to world peace.

Remember the Law School, and its honored graduates, like Barbara Jordan, who have defended the legal system of this country, ‘a country of laws and not of men’; and Cornell William Brooks, former head of the NAACP.

Rejoice at the varied commitments through School of Communication to the development of an educated populace, on which the rest of democracy depends.

Reflect on the Sargent School lectureships on physical and occupational therapy, open to the public, and applicable to the work of many other schools and colleges as well, with focus on the care of the whole person.

To these vital forms of outreach and engagement in schools and colleges, add co-curricular projects (brought into more prominence by the new ‘HUB’ initiative).  That is, add the influence of the Howard Thurman Center in race and conversation across difference;  the special scholarships for city students (Menino), for Catholic students (Medeiros), and for Methodist Students (Clergy offspring); add the voice of Marsh Chapel, across the region and around the globe, every Sunday morning; add the 6 University Chaplaincies and 25 campus ministries, all with some portion of service; add the ROTC program for women and men preparing to ‘preserve and protect the Constitution of the United States’ (including with their very lives);  add the Hubert Humphrey Scholars international students and families program (one of the original programs in the country); add occasional work like the space given to 1,000 Tulane students for the year 2005-6following Katrina; add the Community Service Center and its multiple programs and FYSOP;  add the Pardee Center and its ecumenical and hopeful labor; add the Elie Wiesel Center; add PILOT; add the BU Initiative on Cities; add the Sustainability Center:  all of these to some measure reach out beyond the University to serve and help the larger community, across the region and around the globe.  Boston University exemplifies a culture of ‘outreach and engagement’.

Friends, as Peter Marshall used to say, ‘There are a lot of things wrong. But there are a lot of things right.’ Clasp goodness today, in word and song and sacrament, as nourishment for the week to come.

Goodness is close at hand.  Goodness is close to you.  Goodness is not far, not out of reach, not gone, not gone forever.  Goodness, what makes life liveable, and godly, is within reach.  Are we ready to reach out and receive?

– The Rev. Dr. Robert A. Hill

Rectifying the Name of Christianity

Sunday, May 27th, 2018

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John 3:1-17

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You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you have created all things, and by your will they have their being.

You are worthy, O Lamb, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed us for God from every tribe and language and nation; you have made us to be a kingdom and priests serving our God.

To the One who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever. Amen. – Revelation 4: 11, 5: 9b-11 (Common Worship)

 

You may be forgiven for flinching somewhat when you are told by friends what they have heard that “Christians” say, or hear about what “Christians” are doing on the evening news, or read about how “Christians” vote in your morning newspaper. You may be forgiven for that knot in your stomach when you hear that a seminary president has resigned in the wake of criticism for enabling sexual assault, sexual harassment, and domestic partner violence. You may be forgiven for wondering what what passes for Christianity these days has to do with Jesus of Nazareth.

How did we get here?

Well, consider for a moment all of those posters and t-shirts and bumper stickers and tattoos you have seen sporting merely eight characters: J – O – H – N – 3 – : – 1 – 6. What does that inscription even mean? For someone walking down the street, it is just a string of eight characters with no obvious meaning, but of course, being a good church goer, you know that it refers to the Bible, and therein to the Gospel according to St. John, the third chapter, and the sixteenth verse. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (NRSV) Well, now. Ain’t that nice. God loved the world. Everlasting life. Sounds pretty sweet. But what lies lurking beneath the surface, that is, what is being implied when the verse is foisted in the faces of the uninitiated, is not the promise of salvation but the threat of believe or perish. Rather than the grace of God, the verse is being used like an underhanded compliment to spread judgment and condemnation. What’s more, it is pretty obvious, even to the uninitiated, that this is precisely what is going on.

The name of Christianity is in a pretty sorry state in many quarters, not because people have not learned how wonderful Jesus is, but because they have learned just how horrible Christians can be. Can the name “Christian” be redeemed? I’m not sure, but perhaps it can be rectified. The project of rectifying names comes not from the first century of the common era in Palestine but from the fifth century before the common era in China. You may have pause to wonder whether an idea at such distance in time and space from Jesus, let alone from you and I, could possibly be relevant, but a very important dissertation set to be defended in August here at Boston University makes the case that the two need not necessarily be as far apart from one another intellectually as they are from some of their own neighbors in time and space.

I am grateful that my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Bin Song, Chapel Associate for the Confucian Association here at Marsh Chapel, is here to read from the Analects of Confucius this morning, in Chinese and English.

子路曰:「衛君待子而為政,子將奚先?」子曰:「必也正名乎!」子路曰:「有是哉,子之迂也!奚其正?」子曰:「野哉由也!君子於其所不知,蓋闕如也。名不正,則言不順;言不順,則事不成;事不成,則禮樂不興;禮樂不興,則刑罰不中;刑罰不中,則民無所措手足。故君子名之必可言也,言之必可行也。君子於其言,無所苟而已矣。」

Zilu asked, “If the Duke of Wei were to employ you to serve in the government of his state, what would be your first priority?” The Master answered, “It would, of course, be the rectification of names (zhengming 正名).” Zilu said, “Could you, Master, really be so far off the mark? Why worry about rectifying names?” The Master replied, “How boorish you are, Zilu! When it comes to matters that he does not understand, the gentleman should remain silent. If names are not rectified, speech will not accord with reality; when speech does not accord with reality, things will not be successfully accomplished. When things are not successfully accomplished, ritual practice and music will fail to flourish; when ritual and music fail to flourish, punishments and penalties will miss the mark. And when punishments and penalties miss the mark, the common people will be at a loss as to what to do with themselves. This is why the gentleman only applies names that can be properly spoken and assures that what he says can be properly put into action. The gentleman simply guards against arbitrariness in his speech. That is all there is to it.” (Confucius. Analects. trans. Edward Slingerland. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003. 139).

Thank you, Dr. Song. Now, before you sit down, perhaps you could help me with something. I seem to have forgotten the name of the author of that very important dissertation about to be defended regarding doctrines of creation in Christianity and Confucianism. Do you recall who it is? Oh, that’s your dissertation? Well, this is awkward. Dear friends, please join me in congratulating Dr. Song on his tenure track appointment as Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Washington College in Maryland beginning in July.

The project of rectifying names begins with the assumption of a leader who has undergone an extensive program of moral self-cultivation. Such a leader would lead by moral force, that is, would have influence simply by virtue of the quality of their character, including at the level of influencing how their followers use language. Rectifying names is about making sure that language accords with reality, that words correspond with real objects, and that grammar articulates real relationships and distinctions. Of course, as we are learning in our time in real time, immorally self-cultivated leaders are quite capable of having precisely the opposite effect to disastrous social consequences.

For an example of rectifying names, we need turn nor further than right back to the Gospel according to St. John, the third chapter, the first through the fourteenth verses:

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I say to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. (NRSV)

Nicodemus is confused, and we can hardly blame him. As far as he can tell, birth is something that happens at the beginning of life, it occurs once, and it is a rather bloody affair of being forcibly ejected from the womb of one’s mother. Jesus is here rectifying the name “born” to refer not only to birth into this life but also to birth into eternal life, and this birth is by water and the Spirit from above. Unfortunately, this attempt at rectification largely fails. In point of fact, this is likely because Jesus violates two of the four maxims of conversational implicature identified by British philosopher of language H. Paul Grice as underlying conditions for successful communication. Jesus upholds the maxim of quality, speaking what he knows to be true, and the maxim of relevance, speaking to the topic at hand, but he violates the maxim of quantity by failing to provide as much information as needed for Nicodemus to understand, and the maxim of manner, which requires clarity, brevity, and orderliness while avoiding obscurity and ambiguity.

If anything, this excursus serves to demonstrate that rectifying the name of Christianity can be no small feat. The name of “Christian” for many refers not to the grace of God but to rank hypocrisy in service to the self-interests of its purveyors. Such hypocrisy is inevitable when so many Christians have shifted the reference of what they take to be ultimate from God to their own self-interests, which is precisely what Paul Tillich identified as idolatry: mistaking the finite for the infinite – the bible is mistaken for God, masculinity is mistaken for Christ-likeness, whiteness is mistaken for purity, the nation state is mistaken for the realm of God, and money is mistaken for salvation.

It is not the case that these idolatries are recent inventions among modern Christians. Many if not all of them have been lurking within Christianity virtually since the beginning. Much could be said detailing the histories of each of them, but for the moment let us focus on the last, the confusion of money for salvation. As another very important dissertation, recently defended at Harvard, points out, theology and economics have been intertwined in Christian theology all the way back to the writings of St. Paul, rendering the logic of salvation in financial terms.

I am grateful that my dear friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Jennifer Quigley, Chapel Associate for Vocational Discernment here at Marsh Chapel, is here to read an example of this from St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in Greek and English:

Ἄρα οὖν, ἀδελφοί, ὀφειλέται ἐσμὲν οὐ τῇ σαρκὶ τοῦ κατὰ σάρκα ζῆν, εἰ γὰρ κατὰ σάρκα ζῆτε, μέλλετε ἀποθνῄσκειν· εἰ δὲ πνεύματι τὰς πράξεις τοῦ σώματος θανατοῦτε, ζήσεσθε. ὅσοι γὰρ πνεύματι θεοῦ ἄγονται, οὗτοι υἱοὶ θεοῦ εἰσιν. οὐ γὰρ ἐλάβετε πνεῦμα δουλείας πάλιν εἰς φόβον ἀλλ’ ἐλάβετε πνεῦμα υἱοθεσίας ἐν ᾧ κράζομεν· αββα ὁ πατήρ. αὐτὸ τὸ πνεῦμα συμμαρτυρεῖ τῷ πνεύματι ἡμῶν ὅτι ἐσμὲν τέκνα θεοῦ. εἰ δὲ τέκνα, καὶ κληρονόμοι· κληρονόμοι μὲν θεοῦ, συγκληρονόμοι δὲ Χριστοῦ, εἴπερ συμπάσχομεν ἵνα καὶ συνδοξασθῶμεν.

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (NRSV)

Thank you, Dr. Quigley. Now, before you sit down, perhaps you could help me with something. I seem to have forgotten the name of the author of that very important dissertation about theo-economics in St. Paul’s epistle to the Philippians. Do you recall who it is? Oh, that’s your dissertation? Well, this is awkward. (Is anyone else having déjà vu all over again?) Dear friends, please join me in congratulating Dr. Quigley on her graduation from Harvard Divinity School with the Doctor of Theology in New Testament and Early Christianity last week.

Some of you may be wondering how we got from there to the idolatrous hypocrisy that characterizes too much of Christianity today. Alas, it is really not that hard. Allow me to demonstrate. Hear then a proof that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is in fact the savior of the world on the basis of the Gospel according to St. John, the third chapter, verses fifteen through seventeen:

‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ (NRSV)

From here I take you to Valentine’s Day 2011, my first Valentine’s Day with Holly, to whom I have now been blissfully married for six years today. Happy anniversary, love. On that Valentine’s Day in 2011, I had planned a nice evening out, with dinner at a tapas restaurant followed by a screening of Casablanca at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square. To this romantic plan, Holly appended a pre-dinner screening of a documentary film on the effort to eradicate Guinea Worm, a parasitic infection contracted by drinking contaminated water resulting in the growth of a worm, sometimes up to a meter long, in the lower extremities over the course of a year, which then emerge through a blister in the skin to deposit their larvae and begin the cycle all over again.

Now, in John 3: 15, Jesus prophesies that “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” He is referring here back to the Hebrew Scriptures, the book of Numbers, the 21st chapter, where the Israelites are wandering around the desert whining and so God sends a plague of fiery serpents to whip them into shape. Of course, they repent, so God tells Moses to put a serpent on a pole and whoever looks at the serpent on the pole would live. (Note here the similarity with the medical symbol of the Rod of Asclepius, a Greek deity of healing and medicine, which is a serpent wrapped around a pole). Guinea worm may well be the plague of fiery serpents described in Numbers. After all, when the worm emerges from the skin, it does so through a painful blister that sufferers describe as a burning sensation. Thus, on the basis of Jesus prophesy linking his own crucifixion to the plague of fiery serpents, and then his crucifixion to the salvation of the world in verse seventeen, clearly the salvation of the world consists in the eradication of guinea worm. Since there are still people in the world who suffer from guinea worm, clearly Jesus’ crucifixion was not as successful in accomplishing this goal as he had promised. However, due largely to the dedication and resourcefulness of the Carter Foundation, led by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, guinea worm cases are down to only thirty worldwide in 2017 from 3.5 million cases thirty years prior. Thus, once guinea worm is finally eradicated once and for all, Jimmy Carter will have saved the world.

See, you really can get the bible to say pretty much anything. I should note that Jimmy Carter himself would be horrified by this interpretation. If you don’t believe me, then you should attend bible study with him at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia before church some Sunday. Just be sure to get there early, very early, like, before 6:00a.m., if you want a seat.

This example also serves to make Confucius’ point that when names are not used in a way that accords with the contours of reality, “the common people will be at a loss as to what to do with themselves.” Indeed, what are we do with Christianity and those who call themselves Christians? Confucius prescribes exemplary moral leadership that does not succumb to the inevitable hypocrisy of idolatry but instead accords its own actions with what is real, and true, and good, that is, with God. Such leaders would be able to rectify the name of Christianity by influencing others to accord their actions with what is real, and true, and good.

But where are we to find such leaders? Right here! Marsh Chapel! You are such leaders. You have the ability to go out and in thought, word, and deed to rectify the name of Christianity. You are empowered by the Spirit to go forth and accord your actions with what is real, and true, and good, to inspire others to accord their actions with what is real, and true, and good, and to hold those in power to account when they lie, and cheat, and steal. To rectify the name of Christianity, go forth as good Confucians that you may resist hypocrisy and idolatry, that you may properly distinguish the finite from the infinite, and that you may lead with moral force. On this Trinity Sunday, bind unto yourselves the strong name of God who makes reality, Christ the norm of truth, and the Spirit that leads us into goodness. Amen.

-Brother Lawrence A. Whitney, LC†

University Chaplain for Community Life

‘This I Believe’ Meditations

Sunday, May 13th, 2018

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John 17:6-19

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Robin Masi – Ed.D – Educational Leadership and Policy Studies; SED’18 

I believe in the power of art to transcend boundaries that words cannot provide.

I believe that living the life of an artist and teaching art students one needs to learn from those that have gone before us.

This has brought me to think about my own role model, Sister Marie deSales Dinneen and one of her role models while she attended Boston University over 50 years ago. She encouraged me to attend B.U. for my doctorate in education – her beloved alma mater.

Sr. Marie always knew she wanted to be a nun. She was a devoted sister, teacher to the “youngsters” at Regis as she called them, and a rabid Boston sports fan.

Sr. first attended Harvard University on a full scholarship. She studied the classics which as she put it “was like crucifying myself” so she transferred to Boston University and for the next 10 years she received her PhD in art history and then another bachelors and masters from the College of Fine Arts. She never exhibited her work but wanted to be the best teacher for her students. Her own art work was phenomenal and included joyous themes of complex compositions of parades, holidays, and other multi-group outings.

Phillip Guston is one of the most well-known abstract expressionist artists whose oversized canvases of Klansmen, fat men in cigars, and other aggressive imagery was painted in violent and expressive tones of black, gray and red. His work dealt head-on with social and political issues and he has exhibited internationally for decades. I couldn’t imagine two more different people or artists. Phillip was one of Sr. Marie’s professors here at BU.

Sister once told me “My first introduction to Phillip was when I was sitting in class, in layperson’s clothing as this was after Vatican II, and he looked at me and said,

‘And I see we have Marie Dinneen from Weston. Are you one of those ladies who are here because your husband says you are a good painter?

“Not quite,” Sr. Marie recounted. “I’m a teacher at Regis College and I’m here like everybody else in that I want to learn about art.”

She recalled another conversation.

“I was early for class one day and my work was on the board ready for a critique. It was a jumble of gesture drawings of Archbishop Cushing with kids making their confirmation.”

Phillip asked ‘is that yours, Marie? I think I see a cardinal – he’s holding his hand out to the great unwashed.”

“Yes,’ she said – ‘he has a special way of doing it’ and I flung my hand out – and he said humorously, ‘that’s it, Marie, we’re the great unwashed!” They had a good laugh together and he became one of the best critiquers of her work.

“I grew to like him very much,” she said.
When she learned of her acceptance to the MFA program at CFA another professor said,

‘Marie, you’d be interested to know that the one who went to bat for you the most to get into the MFA program was Phillip.”

I believe Sr. Marie found her place here at B.U., and so did I. Just like she said I would.

I believe that when you follow those who have come before you, you always end up in the right place.

Anne Marie Kelley – MS -Project Management; MET’18

At 59 I may not be the oldest graduate this year, but I most certainly am not the youngest. However, I believe that if you are open to changing, to enriching your life through learning, you can do anything.

I believe in the power of a smile; it’s a non-verbal sign of encouragement, a universal sign of welcome, a way to say I see you and you are not alone.

I believe in the power of laughter; it can ease tense moments, make us realize that you don’t have to take everything in life so seriously.

I believe in celebrating small successes. Many of our goals in life, like pursuing a degree, will take time to achieve. Celebrating the small successes helps recharge our batteries so we can continue pursuing our goals.

I believe in faith, in yourself, in your friends and family and in God. Faith gives you the courage and strength to keep moving forward, to overcome obstacles. Faith gives you hope.

I believe it’s okay to not be perfect, even sometimes to fail; it builds coping skills and the perseverance you need to keep moving forward.

I believe in the power of grit, of holding on, of hanging in there even when times are difficult, as this prepares you for whatever happens in your life, and it is a necessary ingredient for success in whatever endeavor you undertake.

I believe in the power of asking for help and offering to help. We all have different skills and talents and sharing these talents will help us make the world a better place.

I believe in the power of embracing diversity. By learning about others you learn more about yourself. You come to realize that we have more in common than in our differences.

This commencement is a double blessing for me as my son is also graduating and earning his undergraduate degree. I know that parents of all graduates – whether from the US or from another country, no matter their race, religion or socio- economic status, want the same as I want for my son; an opportunity to have a good life, to be productive, to define and achieve their own success and happiness, to know that they are loved, and to be able to love themselves and others.

I believe it does ‘take a village’ to raise a child. It’s our job to help the next generation; to ensure that we leave this world in the hands of those capable to make the world a better place.

And, I do believe even an old dog can learn new tricks, if they are willing and if they have the love and support of family and friends. After all none of us travels this journey of life alone, we need each other to become the best version of ourselves.

Evan Armacost -BA/MA – Classical Studies; CAS/GRS’18

“Take, Lord, receive, all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will.” So begins Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Suscipe prayer that changed my life a little more

than one year ago. My faith journey at Boston University began with a certain hesitation; styles of worship and community were very different from my home parish in Evanston, IL, compounding on the homesick anxieties of going to college halfway across the country. For too long my Catholicism felt like a crystal cup I had inherited from my family and parish community: something that I was obligated to protect but that was not entirely mine. I turned instead to academics for consolation and validation, filling my schedule and my identity with studies and professional aspirations while growing increasingly empty.

As my spirit and selfhood reached a chilling nadir I embarked on my long-awaited semester abroad in Rome which would become the beginning of a pilgrimage that continues to this day. There I felt drawn to pray, to journal, to re-evaluate my life and its meaning in new ways. One word kept tugging at my heart: surrender. Such a prospect terrified me. I had spent a year and a half deeply curved in on myself in a relentless quest to achieve some ever-distant “success.” What would it mean to let go?

My wrestling inclinations came to a head during an Art History field trip to the Chiesa della Gesù, mother church of the Jesuits. From the moment I entered the church I came to the realization that for years I had been chasing my pride and ambitions ahead of God’s wishes for me. I resolved to turn my life back toward God and outside of myself, in whatever way the Lord would invite me. Be warned: “Ask and you shall receive!” Kneeling before the tomb of Saint Ignatius on the church’s left side I found an English prayer card with the text of the Suscipe.

“Whatever I have or possess You have given to me; to You I return it and hand it over to be governed by Your will.”

As I read words that promised a radical gift of self beyond my boldest imaginings I was filled with the Holy Spirit. I had never understood that this phrase, so often found in Scripture, was more than metaphor: it was an all-encompassing sensation. I became empowered and encouraged by a love I had nearly forgotten. It was then that I knew that, even if I gave God everything, I would lack nothing.

From that day to the present I have endeavored to share the love that I experienced in Rome. I make eye contact, I smile, I listen – really listen. Academics instead of an end themselves are now a means to that greatest End, God, and bring me great joy. The BU Catholic Center, always a space where I felt welcome, has become a second home. By the wisdom of the Holy Spirit I have decided to enter the Jesuits after my time at Boston University comes to an end. I do not know all that my future holds, but I have learned to trust those final words of Ignatius’ prayer:

“May you give to me only Your love and grace and I will be rich enough, nor will I ask for anything more.”

Nichholas Rodriguez – BS – Computer Engineering; ENG’18 

In my four years, I am not sure if I could reduce what I believe to a set of theological statements or ideas. I think if someone were to ask me, “what do you believe?,” I would maybe point them to the set of creedal statements that the Reverend Dean Hill mentioned months ago in a sermon titled A Word in the Wilderness. There, among other statements, he said:

“God is love…[and]
Life is a sacred journey to freedom.”

I would also maybe point to Mike McHargue’s Axioms about Faith, where he states:

“Faith is AT LEAST a way to contextualize the human need for spirituality and find meaning in the face of mortality…, [and]

God is AT LEAST the natural forces that created and sustain the Universe as experienced via a psychosocial model in human brains that naturally emerges from innate biases.”

While my theology has changed over these last four years, I would say the real change in what I believe is not exactly the base narratives of my own personal creeds, but rather my attitudes about them.

For our personal creeds deal with what it means to be.

In these last four years, I oftentimes found myself trying to find the courage to be in the midst of the many tensions that exist within our modern, globalized societies and within my own story as I wrestled with my own humanity.

In my four years here, I wrestled with doubt and the seemingly endless conflicts between my scientific intuition and my living, breathing faith.

I wrestled with the dark nights in my soul, I wrestled with failures and loss, and I wrestled with the implications of my own smallness and our Pale Blue Dot’s fragileness in a large, cold universe, and with the death of my God felt at the loss of my Freshman year’s neatly wrapped up faith. But, in the death of my God, I felt for a moment a connectedness between everything and the energy within myself keeping me alive. I felt, for a moment, existence itself.

I wrestled with what it meant to hold convictions and identities in a pluralistic world. In my four years here, I figured out really quickly that life does not make perfect sense, and that while there are wrongs and there are injustices in our world that we need to resist, I also learned that humanity’s distinct and diverse set of religious, spiritual and cultural identities are all beautiful – and that unity is not uniformity.

In my wrestling, I often felt connected to something greater. In the many conversations I had with colleagues surrounding justice, meaning, and the future of our world, there were times when I felt morealive. I felt the energy within me beating and a connection within myself to the millennia of traditions and ideas that are constantly in conversation with me. For moments, I felt the words of prophets and teachers, of the New Being and of Spirit, working through me. A few times, I felt for moments that these stories, my culture, my faith, and these conversations truly matter.

So, in my experiences I learned to be thankful, to listen, to empathize, and to engage.

We exist for the time we do, and in every moment, we have the opportunity to engage. We have the opportunity to engage with ourselves, with what we care about, with our world, with those around us, and with the Ground of Being from which we exist.

And, it is within wrestling with this holy tension and our own humanities, it is within our engaging with those of whom we may be unfamiliar, and it is within our finding the common ground(s) binding us, where we may see the face of God.

Marritt Nowak – BA – International Relations; CAS/Pardee’ 18

I believe in change. Four years ago I made a decision. After fourteen years of faith-based education at my Catholic school in St. Louis, I was ready for a change. I went from a class just short of one hundred girls to my undergraduate year at BU, with nearly four thousand students from all over the world. Different. Boston University, with its promise of diversity, urban environment and New England weather promised to be the exact opposite of what I had grown accustomed to. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Of course, what we think when we first arrive as undergraduates and what we know when we leave also tend to be completely different things. Just a few weeks in to freshman year, I was invited to hear the Marsh Chapel Choir perform one of their exquisite Bach cantatas. I had always loved classical music, and a new friend would be singing, it sounded like a lovely way to spend a Sunday morning. The moment I entered this space I felt overwhelmed with welcoming smiles, friendly handshakes and of course the thoughtful preaching and beautiful music. I was home.

My visits increased in frequency, cantata after cantata, fellowship events with the global ministry department, and holy week services bringing me further and further into this community, something I had not anticipated as I tried to break out of what I thought was faith boxing me in. But that wasn’t the case at all, faith was the very thing opening doors to the diversity and new experiences I craved when I first began my journey. Before I knew it I was back in religion classes, eventually choosing to minor in the subject and visiting the chapel whenever I was free for interfaith fellowship events. I knew I needed to bring the welcoming spirit and positive energy I encountered in this space to more communities. This semester, I have welcomed refugees to a new country, using the warmth and earnest kindness I learned from Marsh Chapel. I had the privilege of assisting new arrivals in obtaining vital social services. It was waiting in lines or on hold, advocating for the people who had next to no one in their corner, that I learned to believe in welcome.

I arrived here unsure of what faith even means, completely out of touch with the things that I believe. The picture is not yet crystal clear, and I assume parts of it will shift and change forms throughout my life, but the pieces have begun to come together. I believe that difference is a good thing, that it makes us stronger. I believe that true community is not founded on mere tolerance, but strengthened by pluralism that embraces diversity, welcomes changes and blossoms with compassion. Going forward, I have learned not only to be open to the differences I encounter in others, but ready to accept change within myself. I came to BU with a desire to change the world; I leave here with the hope that the world will continue to change me.

 

Easter Remembrance

Sunday, May 6th, 2018

 

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John 15:9-17

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-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Easter Alleluia

Sunday, April 29th, 2018

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John 15: 1-8

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Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God.  He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

A Broken Alleluia in Worship

            An Easter Alleluia is a broken Alleluia.  The Alleluia of Easter, sung in worship, awaited in history, and made flesh in your precious life, is ever a broken one.  The resurrection follows the cross, but the resurrection does not replace it. We walk by faith not by sight.  We have this treasure in earthen vessels. We hope for what we do not see. And what we do see is what we see in a mirror—dimly.  We need not over-preach, even in the glorious season of Easter. An Easter Alleluia is broken Alleluia.  The Alleluia of Easter, sung in worship, awaited in community, and made flesh in life, is ever a broken one.  The resurrection follows the cross, but the resurrection does not replace it.  Can you sing a broken alleluia?

            For here we are, just for a moment, in worship.  Singing the hymns of Easter.  Hearing the Easter word.  There’s a blaze of light in every word.

            For a moment, move by the imagination to a borrowed upper room, say in Ephesus.  Candles burn.  A meal has been offered and received.  There is among the fifty, say, there present, a gradual settling, a quiet.  It may be a long quiet, starting from that late first century numinous circle and ending—here, now.   Acute pain abides in this circle, the pain of the loss of a beloved leader, the pain of the loss of a venerable religious tradition, the pain of the loss of a prized eschatological hope—love, faith, and hope, lost. Broken.

            Yet as the circle settles, a prayer and reading and a further silence and a long hymn sung, ALL Who has held them SPEAKS.  In the silence and in the singing and in then the antiphonal, mournful and joyful, worship antiphon.

            A verbal, spoken, uttered opening upon Ultimate Reality.

            How shall they call upon him in whom they have not believed…?

            I am…light, life, resurrection, way, truth, Good Shepherd, door, bread, water.

            I am…the true vine. You shall know…’the truth’.  That they may know Thee the only ‘true’ God.

            Every heart has secret sorrows.  Every land has cavernous grief. For the antiphonal, ancient singers of our scriptural broken alleluia, the hurts are dislocation, disappointment and departure.

            Antiphon: ‘Abide in me…As I abide in you’.  Stay. Remain.  Settle.  Dig in. Locate.  Vines take a long time to grow.  But so?More than any other living scholar, John Ashton (The Gospel of John and Christian Origins) has pierced the meaning of this passage, and others like it. 

            Ashton: John’s portrait of Jesus arose from his constant awareness, which he shared with members of his community, that they were living in the presence of the Glorified One.  So dazzling was this glory, that any memory of a less-than-glorious Christ was altogether eclipsed.

            Ashton: ’The fear and anger of the Johannine community, as they see themselves exiled from the synagogue by those they call the Jews, is…projected back upon the life of Jesus’…’They had a burning conviction that they had been given the truth (led into all truth) and that through this truth they would come to enjoy a freedom that would release them from the constraints to which they were subjected: ‘the truth will set you free’’(95)

            Ashton: Conscious as they were of the continuing presence in their midst of the Glorified One, no wonder the community, or rather the evangelist who was its chief spokesman, smoothed out the rough edges of the traditions of the historical Jesus and expanded the points into stars. (They) realized that the truth that they prized as the source of their new life was to be identified not with the Jesus of history but with the risen and glorious Christ, and that this was a Christ free from all human weakness.  The claims they made for him were at the heart of the new religion that soon came to be called Christianity. (199)  The difference between John’s portrait of Christ and that of the Synoptists is best accounted for by the experience of the glorious Christ constantly present to him and his community (204)

            Ashton:  Some in the Johannine community spoke in the voice of Jesus.  Especially this is so in the ‘I Am’ sayings.  If Jesus on earth did not say these things who did?  Answer:  the Johannine prophet (s).

            Can you sing a broken alleluia?  Every hymn, for all its joy, carries a guttural memory of acute hurt.  In worship, can you sing for joy without forgetting the brokenness out of which that alleluia comes?  Let Charles Wesley, let Charles Tindley, let the poor of your past guide you.

A Broken Alleluia in History

            Or what about your place in history, our communal responsibility in real time?  A surface glide across Holy Scripture will not allow, cannot provide gospel insight.  You want to sift the Scriptures.  You want to know them inside and out, upside and down, through and through and through, and then, it may be, by happenstance or grace or the clumsy luck of a very human preacher, you may hear a steadying, saving word.  Look back an Easter month. There’s a blaze of light in every word. Not activism alone, but engagement matter most in history.

            Through this Easter season, Easter tide, you have perhaps noticed, noted, or winced to hear the letter of John, 1 John, amending, redacting, muting and amplifying the gospel of John.  You are keen listeners, practiced and adroit, so you will have wondered a bit about this. Why does 1 John nip at the heels of John?

      The two ‘books’ are written by different authors, in different decades, in different circumstances, with different motives.  The Gospel acclaims Spirit.  The Letter adds in work, ethics, morals, community, tradition, leadership and judgment from on high, rather than judgment by belief and by believer.  We may just have, it is important to say, the Gospel as part of the New Testament, with all its radicality, due to its brother named letter, vouching as it were for the sanity of the Gospel.  The letter, like James Morrison Witherby George Dupree, takes good care of its Gospel mother, the very cat’s mother, you see.  Milne:  James James

Morrison Morrison

Weatherby George Dupree

Took great

Care of his Mother

Though he was only three.

James James

Said to his Mother,

“Mother,” he said, said he;

“You must never go down to the end of the town, if

you don’t go down with me.”

            On April 8, the Gospel in chapter 20 revealed the Spirit, elsewhere called Paraclete or Advocate, come upon us, received and with it received the forgiveness of sins.  But at the heels, nipping, comes along 1 John in chapter 2, which names the Paraclete or Advocate not as Spirit but as Jesus Christ—the righteous—whose commandments all are to keep, on pain of disobedience become lying, and truth taken flight.  Both read on the same Sunday, within minutes of each other, even as they face each other with daggers drawn.

            On April 15, the Gospel still lingering with the Lord and God risen, the letter in Chapter 3, on the qui vive and on the attack, spells out again in no uncertain terms that the righteous do the right, handsome is as handsome does. Both read on the same Sunday, within minutes of each other, even as they face each other with daggers drawn.

            On April 22, the Gospel in chapter 10 acclaiming the pastoral image of the Good Shepherd, whose one glorification on the cross is meant to obliterate the need of any other such, the letter, worried, worries out in chapter 3, a long and sorry recollection of Cain—Abel’s one-time brother—and the demands of love from one who laid down his life, and with whom and for whom we are then meant to do something of the same.  ‘Let us not love in word and speech but in deed and truth’, says 1 John 3, when the whole of the Gospel says the opposite, that words outlast deeds, and that speech, that of the glorious Risen, ever routs works. Both read on the same Sunday, within minutes of each other, even as they face each other with daggers drawn.

            And now today, April 29, when and where our one Great Gospel, the Spiritual Gospel, counsels ‘abide’ and ‘remain’ in chapter 15, just here the letter of 1 John in chapter 4, fearing antinomial abandon, frolicking, deadly afraid that someone somewhere might be at peace or, worse, having fun, appends to his own most beautiful love poem, the charge again of lying, of lack of love of brother, of schism that surely created this letter, 1 John, as the spiritualists and the traditionalists, the Gnostics and the ethicists, parted company, one toward the free land of Montanus and Marcion, the other toward Rome and the emerging church, victorious, against which the Gospel was born, bred, written and preached. Both read on the same Sunday, within minutes of each other, even as they face each other with daggers drawn.

            Of course, both are right.  Or we would not still need or read them, let alone together.  But you are right, too, to feel some neck pain, some whiplash, as Gospel soars and Letter deflates.  It is as if the Song of Solomon is being sung by Obededom.

            The blessed Scripture bears incontrovertible, conflicted witness.  Easter is a broken Alleluia, and was so already 20 centuries ago, as the resurrection cross of Jesus was raised up, in mournful joy, in a real joy made real by its honesty about sorrow.  History is endless contention and intractable difference, including religious history, perhaps especially including religious history.

            You then, in real time, as we read the newspaper as well as the Bible.  You have reason and obligation to be concerned about what you read. You have reason and obligation to be concerned about the persons and personalities driving cultural and political formation. You also have reason and obligation to be concerned about the policies, speaking of polis,which emanate from those personalities and persons, those forms of rhetoric and language and behavior. You have full reason and obligation to be concerned about public good, about the polis, about the forms of culture and civil society across our land, painstakingly built up over 250 years, that are not government and not politics, but are more fundamental and more fragile than both.

            There may well come a time, for you, as a person of faith, to say something or do something, a time when some somewhat risky and uncomfortable mode of social involvement will beckon you.  There’s a blaze of light in every word.

 A Broken Alleluia in Ljfe

            The more ample capacity of our northern neighbors to live in dialectic, including an Easter one, may help us today.

            Montreal self-deprecating Canada joke:  Montreal could have had the best of all worlds—British culture, American government and French cuisine; instead it got American culture, French government and British cuisine.  When you cross the border there are questions:  What is your name?  Where are you from?  Where are you going?  Do you have anything to declare?  Can you sing a broken Easter alleluia?  There’s a blaze of light in every word.

            On the Canadian border, Jan, 1982 or 3, after the 9am service: ‘Was that an Easter sermon?’  We tried unsuccessfully to raise it from the dead before 11am.  A broken alleluia.

         And speaking of Montreal, Leonard Cohen, said of his broken alleluia: “It explains that many kinds of hallelujahs doexist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value.I wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world.”  John was there before him, by 20 centuries. There’s a blaze of light in every word.

            You can’t get very close to Jesus (or Martin King or Howard Thurman or John the Divine) without prayer, hymnody, meditation, reading, study, Scripture, worship, preaching—RELIGION.

            Hear the Gospel!  Christ is Risen, absent and present, waiting to be heard at bedside above the rancorous cacophony about, shorn of his burial clothes, speaking to and through the spiritual confusion, the spiritual Alzheimer’s affliction of life.   There’s a blaze of light in every word.  Word broken or word holy.

            Now, I’ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played, and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do you?

It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth

The minor fall, the major lift

The baffled king composing hallelujah

Hallelujah

 You say I took the name in vain

I don’t even know the name

But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?

There’s a blaze of light in every word

It doesn’t matter which you heard

The holy or the broken hallelujah

Hallelujah 

I did my best, it wasn’t much

I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch

I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you

And even though it all went wrong

I’ll stand before the lord of song

With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah

Hallelujah

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

On Love and Sheep

Sunday, April 22nd, 2018

Click here to listen to the full service

Click here to listen to the Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

-Jessica Ann Hittinger Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

The Bach Experience

Sunday, April 15th, 2018

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1 John 3: 1-7

Luke 24:36-48

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Personal Faith

 

The Christian life is a daily combination of personal faith and social involvement (repeat).  

 

While personal faith is not merely individual faith, nonetheless, it is in persons, like you, that faith is received, and known, and nourished.   There is no hiding here, no hiding behind an unconsidered ignorance, nor behind a well-tempered philosophy, nor behind a mountainous and real hurt, nor behind sloth.  Your faith is yours, especially when it is about all you have left to go on.

 

So, you will continue, brightened by Easter, to develop and practice your faith.  We are not meant to live in Lent. We are meant to live in Easter. The difference Easter makes comes in part by way of a full body embrace of your own personal faith.

 

Do you know God to be a pardoning God?  Do you hope to be made whole in this lifetime?   

 

Knowing pardon, can you creatively and even at some risk, work with another whom you think needs your pardon, I beg your pardon, but who may himself think you need his?  Just how sharp is your faith in its faithful practice of what we pray, Come Sunday, ‘forgive…as we forgive’?

 

Longing for wholeness, can you creatively and even at some risk, take up work that you have long left behind, but you know is part of personal faith development—reading, prayer, giving, serving, listening?  Pardon? Wholeness? It is up to you.

 

Here the faithful Lutheran, JS Bach, can indeed help us, by means of his own example in faith.  His own Bible, we have recently been further taught, was laden with notes in the margin, questions, renderings, and ruminations.  

 

One may choose to play the piano again.  Another may take a language study. One may find a daily devotional reader, like the one my friend gave me by CS Lewis, which sits on my bureau so I can read it while tying my tie.  Another may sit in the quiet of the sanctuary for a while before worship, as did Emerson, I love the silent church before there is any speaking.  One may wander, saunter, flaneur dans le rue, walking for a bit every day (we even have a health group on the staff here doing so right now).  Another may start to journal, to record dreams, and to record insights, and to record angers and to record escapes. Teaching and learning are spiritual adventures in pursuit of invisibles and intangibles (W. Arrowsmith, as remembered by V. Kestenbaum).  Or, if nothing else, you can hardly do better than a conversation, in loving care, with another person of faith, over lunch, over coffee, over a beer, over the phone.  One may look hard at his sexual life, sexual activity, to see whether it becomes the gospel, and whether it approximates the very general guidance in the wisdom saying, In singleness integrity, in partnership fidelity.  At least one, probably, will choose to listen to the Marsh Chapel service, Come Sunday. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

Dr. Jarrett:  in terms of today’s music, and text, what witness do you sense Bach brings us, of personal faith,  within the setting of this lovely cantata?

Bach

 

Today’s cantata, is, indeed, a lesson in faith, assurance, and the promise of God’s goodness in our lives. Cantata 69a – “Praise the Lord, o My Soul” was first performed on August 15, 1723, like all the cantatas in this year’s series, during Bach’s first three months as Cantor in Leipzig. We have seen in these cantatas not just a remarkable display of compositional craftsmanship, but also an authoritative theological understanding through both the compilation of the libretto and the setting of those texts. Cantata 69a features from beginning to end an exuberant and joyful hymn of praise of God and the good works that enable a life of faith. Opening with full festival forces with trumpets and timpani, Bach sets the words of Psalm 103, vs 2 in a marvelous double fugue. The music is absolutely radiant, brilliant, and brimming with the praise of all God’s faithful. With this rich texture, we can well imagine the sound of Wesley’s thousand tongues to sing the great Redeemer’s praise.

 

For Bach, the Gospel lesson of the day was from Mark 7, the account of Jesus healing the deaf man at the Sea of Galilee. As the cantata turns from corporate to personal praise, the soprano and tenor soloists join the voices that witnessed Jesus’s miracle proclaiming the goodness of his deeds, and the glory of God. The cheerful tenor aria is delightfully score for recorder and Oboe da caccia. Listen for the extended line that Bach writes for the word erzähle or “declare”, and like the man whose tongue Jesus loosed, the tenor promises a “Gott gefällig Singen durch die frohe Lippen” or a “God pleasing singing though joyful lips.”

 

With the following alto recit, we turn inward to remember our human frailty and shortcomings. With further reminder of the Gospel lesson, the alto calls on God to utter his mighty ‘Ephphata’ just as Jesus did in Mark 7:34. From the singing of that Aramaic word meaning “Be opened”, the otherwise syllabic recitative opens to a lovely melody on the words, “so wird mein Mund voll Dankens sein!” “ Then my mouth will be full of thanks!”

 

The bass aria which follows affirms God as Redeemer and Protector. The believer, here the voice of the bass, pens himself to Christ’s Cross and Passion, pledging to praise at all times. In the same way that Christ gladly took up the cross, thereby exalting his Passion, we, too, will rejoice and sing praise in our own Cross-bearing and suffering. Note the stark contrast of the lines for Kreuz und Leiden (Cross and Suffering) with “singt mein Mund mit Freuden” (My mouth sings with joy).

 

The final Chorale echoes the close of Mark 7 proclaiming “He hath done all things well!” “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, darbei will ich verbleiben.” Because God holds me in a fatherly embrace in his arms, I will let him alone govern me. Confidence, assurance, affirmation, and ultimately, faith to live in freedom, and freedom to live by faith.  

Social Involvement

 

The Christian life is a daily combination of personal faith and social involvement (repeat).  Of deep personal faith, and active social involvement.

 

On the front porch of our beloved Marsh Chapel stands John Wesley, preaching, who reminds us that there is no holiness save social holiness (repeat).  In the tradition which gave birth to Boston University and to Marsh Chapel and so to our worship on this and every Sunday, personal faith and social involvement go together, and, in truth, are not found, except hand in hand.

 

As all of our eight days of worship, teaching, fellowship and remembrance, in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have evinced among us, pistis and polis, faith and culture go together.   Here Bach may help us, if especially in the surge of beauty his music showers on us a sense of grace and in so doing gathers us as one.  The older Lutheran preference for the two kingdoms, Christ and Culture in paradox, is at some lesser closeness to the transformational aspiration in Wesley’s social holiness.  Yet Bach’s very vocational choice to embed himself in congregational musical life is itself a harbinger of transformation. More, the universal regard for the beauty of Bach itself places on the edge of a way forward, as a global village.

 

As Christian women and men, we are not free to celebrate faith apart from life, to affirm faith in ignorance of the polis, the city, the culture, the political.  The Bible itself is a 66-book declamation of social justice, at every turn, by every writer, with every chapter, at every point.   Moses, Amos, Micah, Matthew, Luke, Paul, All. Try and read the Bible without being confronted, accosted, seized and shaken by its fierce acclamation of the hope of justice.  Real religion is never very far from justice, even though justice alone, a crucial part of the Gospel, alone is not the heart of the Gospel. The Gospel is love, which is more than justice—though not less.

 

You then, in real time, read the newspaper as well as the Bible.  You have reason and obligation to be concerned about what you read.  You have reason and obligation to be concerned about the persons and personalities driving cultural and political formation. You also have reason and obligation to be concerned about the policies, speaking of polis, which emanate from those personalities and persons, those forms of rhetoric and language and behavior. You have full reason and obligation to be concerned about public good, about the polis, about the forms of culture and civil society across our land, painstakingly built up over 250 years, that are not government and not politics, but are more fundamental and more fragile than both.  You have reason and obligation to be concerned about the use of military force, either as Christian pacifists, or as Christian activists watching for the just war adjectives: responsive, multilateral, proportional, non-imperial, just, and limited.

 

As a runner, say, you have reason and obligation to be concerned about the route itself.  Run with joy the race set, but neglect not to engage by precept and example the social support, the cultural forms required for the race.  The route. The roads cleared. The police. The first responders. The supporting cheerers. The rules and traditions. The many, thousands, standing by you, and standing with you, and standing for you.  Personal holiness is the run. Social holiness is the route. They go together.

 

Five years ago, today, we began Marathon Monday with our Marsh Chapel traditions.  The Dean’s breakfast. The meal of eggs, bacon, muffins and juice, with invitations to all undergraduates to arise before the race comes through Kenmore Square.  Music to sing, written in Boston long ago for a children’s choir,  “My Country ‘Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty”.  Longfellow cited, one if by land if two if by sea, and I on the opposite shore will be. The Gettysburg address recited, Fourscore and seven years ago. Then, out to the race and the day and the 26 mile family picnic on Boston’s best morning.  But as you know the day ended differently than planned, as our Wednesday April 11 remembrance this past week here at BU recalled.  Just recall the social involvement of those who expected to treat blisters and ended up placing tourniquets. Just recall the social involvement in the lives saved, hundreds saved, by prepared, well supported, team oriented hospitals and physicians.  Just recall your social involvement in the vigil that Tuesday evening on our plaza, the Wednesday evening worship service in our sanctuary, the Thursday morning service at the Cathedral with the President speaking words of grace, the Friday lock down.  Just recall the Monday global service for our own Lu Lingzi, which ended with her family, 18 together, bowing at the waist before the University and the world. Dime con quien corres, yo te dire quien eres.  You tell me WITH WHOM you run, and I will tell you who you are.

The Christian life is a daily combination of personal faith and social involvement (repeat).  So, our song this Lord’s day, is just this:

Ah, would that I had a thousand tongues!

Ah, would that my mouth were

Empty of idle words!Ah, would that I said nothing other

Than what was geared to God’s praise!

Then I would proclaim the Highest’s goodness,

For all my life he has done so much for me

That I cannot thank Him in all eternity.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

& Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

 

Easter Antinomy

Sunday, April 1st, 2018

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John 20: 1-18

Click here to hear the sermon only

Frontispiece

    Ring the bells that still can ring.  Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.

    The Lord is Risen.  Hallelujah.

    A few years ago, I stood at a friend’s hospital bedside.  Disoriented by hospital surroundings, harsh scents, frequent and sharp noises, brusque treatments, odd sights and the wholly unfamiliar atmosphere into which she had been cast, my friend the patient spoke anxiously about something only she could understand.  It was gibberish. She told clearly and convincingly a story that was gibberish. Her production of the tale was I think a way of fending off the threatening environment around. We listened, family and pastor. Her daughter simply stood alongside, rubbing her arm, as she talked.  The narrative became more and more wild and unfastened. I wondered what might be said, argued, to quell the storm. Nothing came to mind. Opposite, port side, her daughter calmly rubbed her arm, soothed her brow, straightened the bedding, listened, and, saving-ly, said, at last, ‘Yes, mom, it is hard, sometimes, to know what is real and what is not real’.

    Easter claims, in the teeth of death, that faith and love are real.  Death makes us mortal. Facing death in faith makes us human. Death makes us mortal.  Facing death in love makes us human.

Absence

    Christ absent, Christ present.  Face your fear in faith. Absence.  Go to church in love to. Presence. Absence\Presence.  Faith\Love. Choice\Church. Risen! Hallelujah!

    You know by hard experience that my preference come Sunday at 11am is to preach about sin and death and the joy of tithing.  But. This is Easter. So, that is all we shall say about my favorite themes.

    For today is Resurrection Day, a glad, joyful day.  For today, rubbing our arm and mopping our brow and turning down the bedding on those more regular themes, is One who, absent and present, in faith and love, by the bedside of your befuddlement, puzzlement, and confusion murmurs, whispers, ‘It is hard to know sometimes what is real and what is not’.

    The Gospel tells of two modes of resurrection, two experiences which the earliest Christians prized and preached, two senses of resurrection, both read today in John 20.

    Two contradictory meanings of the chief article of Christian belief, as Calvin named resurrection.  Thus, an Easter Antinomy, a paradox, a combination of contradictory truths, both true, different, opposite, complementary, dialectical:  an Easter Antimony.

    Peter and the Beloved Disciple (and with them the whole company of Christians militant and triumphant, including you and me) have one first experience of resurrection.  This is the experience of Jesus’ absence.

    An empty tomb.  Discarded grave clothing.  Silence. Emptiness. Nothing.

    In other gospels, an angel voice and message, but not here:  He is risen.  That is: he is not here.  See the place where they laid him.

    The first meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is that he is absent from this world, absent from our eyesight, absent from our apprehension, absent from the cave Plato so loved, with its dancing shadows.  Not here. See the place. Peter and John—for all their differences, Church and Spirit—had in common the race to see Jesus (which Peter lost and the Beloved Disciple won, as gospel ever trumps tradition and spirit ever trumps institution.) Peter and John went to find him and did not find him there. He is simply not to be found, AWOL, gone.  Our early sisters and brothers faced this absence and its fear, head on. They faced down fear in faith.

    You see.  The empty tomb creates an opportunity, a possibility, a challenge.  In fact, it forces—Jesus’ resurrection absence forces—an encounter with faith.  Resurrection means the power of an intervening word to be spoken and heard. Only a Risen, that is Absent, Christ, a hidden, silent God, the God beyond God, can also give the full possibility of faith.  If we knew everything, we would not need faith.

    He is risen means he is not here, so you must decide for yourself whether to live in faith or not, whether to face your fear in faith, or not.  It means that no one else is out there, or in there, or there, writing the script for your life, or for our shared life.  You have to write the script yourself. And. You have to write the script, set the stage, get the props, choose the cast, direct the show and star in it at the same time.  Acting alone won’t cut it. And that is plenty, plenty scary.  It means that God raised Jesus from the dead, now absent from your life, to give freedom, and to let the chips fall where they may.

    Last month I hurried out of the office in late afternoon, hoping to ‘miss the traffic’ on the way to Needham.  This is our lot in Boston, to live to miss the traffic. Half way to the car, I realized I had taken the wrong folder, and had to return to the office to pick up the speech I was to give that night at the 100-year-old Boston Minister’s Club (the age of the club, not of the members).  I came again out of the office and was met by a wonderful young woman, perhaps a senior, saying: “I need to talk to you.  It won’t take long. I need to ask for a prayer.  You see: I have just found the perfect job, and interviewed for it.  I pray they will send me on to the next level. It is the perfect job.”  It has been a while since I have used ‘perfect’ and ‘job’ in the same sentence, but, pray we did.  What a joy to be taught again by bright students about the thrill and possibility in life!

    But notice: After Good Friday service, I found a note perched like a bird on my office door window.  She had indeed succeeded! But more: her mother had said to her, mom to daughter, ‘Let your faith be greater than your fear’.  A note with that line, 40 hours before a two point Easter sermon, the first of which is ‘face your fear in faith’: that is serendipity a little close to the bone!

    An article last week recalled Desmond Tutu, a happy warrior, whose good humor in the face of real difficulty made others smile.  Reagan smiled to remember him, and when asked “How is Bishop Tutu?”, with a little whimsy replied, ‘Tutu—Soso”!

    That is the touch of humorous Novocain before the needle:  Tutu knew well about the faith forged in freedom. Desmond Tutu had it right:  God sure must love freedom because he has given us the freedom to go straight to hell if we so choose (repeat).

    The ‘silent as a tomb’ tomb puts before you today the matter of faith.

    Faith faces fear and embraces freedom.  It is God’s gift, received on the human side by a singular leap.

    Faith to live the good news of a loving God in the face of a stark cross, and an empty tomb.

    Faith in a silent, invisible God, hidden God, when so many visible idols tempt.

    Faith when you cannot see ahead.

    Faith as a walk in the dark.

    Faith when you are defeated.

    Faith to try something new, to take a new path.

    Faith to risk.

    Faith to open a door.

    Faith to face down fear.  It’s up to you!

    Jesus’ absence, which the disciples courageously took as a call to faith, is the first resurrection experience.  That is, the first thing the Gospel, and the Scripture and the Church have said about Easter is: he is absent, he is not here, see the place where they laid him.

Presence

    Christ absent, Christ present.  Face your fear with faith. Absence.  Live in love in church. Presence. Risen!  Hallelujah!

    The Easter Gospel tells a second truth.  The second truth stands contrary to the first, contradicts even the first, but does not eliminate the first.  Jesus is present. Mary says; “I have seen the Lord’. And several others chime in, finally and definitively Thomas, a few verses hence from today, doubting and fingering and swearing” “My Lord and My God!”  Others, along the Emmaus road: “Did our hearts not burn within us?” And all the early chapters of Acts. And the breakfast of fish with Jesus to come to Chapter 21.

    Without batting an eye, the earliest Christians affirmed, mightily and happily, an Easter antinomy.  Even as Peter proclaimed the tomb empty, Mary shouted back: “I have seen him”. Jesus’ presence, too, not just his absence, is felt, seen, and known.  Risen Christ Present—He is with us to open yet another possibility, challenge, and opportunity. Risen Christ present assembles the church, teaching love.  Resurrection is known in participation before doctrine (Tillich).

    A dramatist, celebrating Broadway, once wrote, “the only thing more frightening than being alone is being with someone”.   

    Resurrection means the resurrection of the body—of Christ: the church.  The body of Christ, the church carries the pronouncement of the intervening word, in her ministry of love, love of God, love of neighbor, and so lives as a community of faith working through love.

    Are we lovers anymore?

    The resurrection body of the church, the Body of Christ, breathes love.

    After twenty years of funerals, I was finally asked to be a pall bearer.  In ministry, you do weddings before you are a bride, you marry others’ children long before you marry off your own and have that expense I mean joy, you bury others’ dads and moms before yours die.  And you instruct pall bearers before you ever lift a casket yourself. We gathered in an old village church, with a light dusting of snow that morning, and sun filling the sanctuary. Hymns were sung, prayers offered, a short, true eulogy.  Flowers. A verse of ‘It is well with my soul’. A reading of Romans 5, the love of God poured into our hearts. The casket of a dear old Methodist lady, grandmother and friend. An invitation to lunch at the Grange. My children did not know what a Grange was.  Choir, do you? Again, the scent of flowers, the heft of the casket, to await burial when the ground had thawed. Christ present, surely, oddly, truly present, with us in grief and hope in the community of faith working through love.

    The church is so fallible, always both a representation and a distortion of the divine.  But when divine, so divine! At the Grange—look it up—over lunch, a north country memory emerged, true and loving.  Mrs. Skinner, an elderly minister’s widow, told about their assignment long ago to Conifer NY, in 1933. Here is an Adirondack logging town with one road in and one road out, as of then no church building.  The congregation met in—the Grange. They raised money in the depression to build a church. But a missionary visited, and told about the needs in China. So, the little congregation thought about it. (Are we lovers anymore?).  They looked around the Grange Hall where they had been worshipping a while already. And they decided they could do so a while longer. They sent the money raised for the church building—to China. ‘That was a loving church’ she remembered that cold funeral day.  That was a loving church in humble Conifer NY, 1933. You only have what you give away in love. Just when you think the church has broken your heart for the last time, Mrs. Skinner comes along to remind you of what love can mean.

    Are we lovers anymore?  Risen Christ Present schools us in how to be together in love for others.

    Speaking of school:  the church goes beyond the church.  One April long ago I had breakfast in the High School where decades earlier I had eaten school lunch, where Jan and I met singing in the choir.  Once one of the best schools in the country, it had fallen on harder times. But that morning a group of neighbors and parents and others were running a breakfast like our Easter breakfast this morning.  They flipped flap jacks. They fried bacon. They sold tickets. They took names and donations. They baked and talked and worked. Said one secular saint—I don’t forget it, so many years later—as she worked to support my Alma Mater: ‘I have to believe this school can work if we love it enough, if we just love it enough’.  You fill the blank for school:  library, neighborhood, college…country?  I believe it can work if we love it enough, if we just love it enough.  Christ wanders around outside of church. Present, oddly present, surely present, in work, in mission, in longing—in love.

    Are we lovers anymore?

Coda

    In absence, Christ gives faith.  In presence, Christ gives love.

    In absence, Christ teaches us to be our own-most selves.  In presence, Christ teaches us to be together.

    In absence, Christ begets faith, which is personal.  In presence, Christ begets love, which is communal.

    In absence, Christ forms courage in the heart, as he did for Peter on Easter.  In presence, Christ forms a company of lovers, a community of faith working through love, as he did through Mary on Easter.

    Faith and love are real.  Faith and love are the Easter Antinomy.  Faith and love are real resurrection experiences.

    The Easter Antinomy, two contradictory truths, snug as a bug in a rug together:  Jesus absent and Jesus present. In oxymoron, in paradox, both are true though they contradict one another, or, perhaps, because they contradict on another.

    Some mornings you wake up and sing with Mary, ‘I have seen the Lord’.  Some mornings you lose the foot race with Peter, but shout: ‘He is not here.  He is risen.’ Every day, things change: what made life, life, becomes absent; what will make life, life, becomes present.’

    Praise God!  Easter morning, now, both presence and absence radiate Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Christ absent, Christ present.  Face your fear with faith. Absence. Live in love in church. Presence. Risen! Hallelujah!

    Can you live, as taught Luther, praying as if it all depends on God and working as if it all depends on us?  Praying in presence and working in absence?

    Bitter cold winds, and an icy afternoon swept us into a warm little restaurant, in Kingston Ontario, of a February weekend a decade or three ago.  It is good to come in from the winter cold, to wait from the promise of warmth in spring. The fire crackled. The space and time for freedom in faith and joy in love heartened alongside the hearth.  Then, over the radio waves came a deep, hurting, baritone voice, that of Leonard Cohen, welling up out of Montreal, out of pain, out of life. A broken hallelujah, the only kind fit for the Christian on Easter, the only sort ample enough for the Easter Antinomy:  Ring the bells that still can ring.  Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in?
    Risen?  Indeed! For it is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness, who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the Glory of God, in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord’.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Merton and Vocation

Sunday, March 18th, 2018

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John 12:20-33

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‘If anyone serve me, he must follow me, and where I am there my servant shall be also’. (John 12: 26)

Graham

One’s sense of calling develops over a lifetime.  Vocation can emerge apart from religious distinctions, often outside inherited personal or spiritual boundaries.  In that way, as Thomas Merton reminds us, vocation is the essential and quintessential ecumenical gift, or charism, or grace.  This Lent reminds us of courage, gratitude, spirit and gladness—the nourishment you will need to survive and prevail into the next decade.

To begin, though, this season of March, not Marsh, madness recalls that in 1987 our Rotary Club in Syracuse, which doubled as a cheering section for the college basketball squad, was in misery.  By just a single point, a last second basket, Syracuse had lost the NCAA championship to Indiana, a day that will live in infamy.  We began the next Monday’s Rotary meeting as usual with a prayer, memorably offered that day by Judge Schultz: We know Lord that we learn most from our troubles, and from our defeats.  We accept this and will try to hold fast to your presence, even in the face of (now here the prayer began to turn sideways—it happens in sermons too!) of unfairness, in the face of bad officiating, in the face of the unspeakable behavior of a chair throwing coach of the opposite team whom I will not mention Lord in prayer by name, in short, we bow before you and accept what has happened.  We don’t always have to win…BUY WE DO DEMAND JUSTICE. Oh, and, uh, AMEN.

A couple of springs later, in 1989, the Rev. Billy Graham spoke at our club, its fiftieth anniversary, following a Graham revival in the Carrier Dome.  I offered the prayer that day, and he said (and I should have noted this in my journal to save this memory for preaching at Marsh Chapel in March of 2018), ‘that was a fine prayer, Rev.Hill.’  He was about 3 or 4 inches taller than I, quiet, gracious and a kindly presence.  And he sure knew what he was talking about regarding prayer.  Of course, in that club we had a well-established tradition of pious and heartfelt prayer already, as Judge Schultz’s prayer did attest: WE DO DEMAND JUSTICE.  My sister, then Vice President and Corporation Counsel at Oneida Silver, gave him a beautiful silver tea tray (which unfortunately was overshadowed by the wife of the owner of Stickley Furniture who gave him a sofa).  These will BOTH go nicely in our home, he graciously responded.

The congregation was of two minds about whether to support the Graham crusade.   I still see the hurt in the eyes of those who felt deeply and strongly that doing so validated Graham’s support of the war in Vietnam, his support of Richard Nixon, his particular form of Calvinism (his conservatism, his audio-taped anti-Semitic remarks (for which he did apologize) and his Unitarianism of the second person of the Trinity.  A few left that vibrant growing church when we decided to support the cause.

Anyway, we chose to participate.  As a theological liberal and a Methodist, to me Graham’s theology made little sense.  But right down the street, right across from the parsonage, on a cold winter night, 80,000 people would be singing hymns, some of our favorites:  In the Garden; Just as I am; Great is Thy Faithfulness; How Great Thou Art.  Catholics, Orthodox, Protestant and Free Church people would work together to bring a little revival, a little salt, to the salt city of Syracuse.  There would be a call to decision to lead a Christian life.  Some would respond visibly and some not, some invisibly and some not, and some would regret the one and some the other, and some not.  And there would be a 500-voice choir (I comment not at all on the notes sung).  It was right in our neighborhood.  Walking distance.  You know what?  It was great and great fun.  I would sooner work with that organization than with most of the denominational boards and agencies I have known.  The Graham people were honest and kind.  They said a thousand times:  go to church on Sunday.  Plus, as much as I love basketball, a Dome full of simple hymns sung from the heart by 80,000 (and a 500-voice choir) made me really smile.

So, when the Boston Globe called last month to ask for a Billy Graham memory, I told them this:  In 1989 the Graham committee promised city pastors that the names of those people who came forward in the crusade, would be given, for follow up and follow through, to the churches in the city, neighborhood by neighborhood.  I am not sure I fully trusted this.  But a week later a big box of names came to the church office.  They were not from the campus and faculty side of our neighborhood, in the main; they were not from the student and bohemian side of our neighborhood, in the main; they were not from the corporate and civic leadership side of our neighborhood, in the main.  They were from down the hill, in the projects, the 1960’s urban housing that we had tried for five years in vain to engage.  And now we had name after name, and an expected standing invitation, and a way to visit on the sixth floor, and an entrée for meals on wheels, and an invitation list for Vacation Bible School, and a way to set up midnight basketball, and get to know some new friends, some of whom joined in for worship, because, on that cold winter night in the full Carrier Dome, they heard the word:  Go to church on Sunday.  (And I couldn’t help add: About his son I make no comment(:).

That is.  We listen and learn with a Roman Catholic monk named Thomas Merton, during Lent 2018.  Why?  Because.  You can learn a great deal from other traditions. Love your ecumenical neighbor as yourself. There are many ways of keeping faith.  Love your religious neighbor as yourself.  You may learn something in with and under the teaching of a neighboring denomination or pastor or congregation.  In my Father’s house, there are many rooms.  If you want a friend, be one; if you want ecumenicity, live it.  You may be ready for the soteriology next door.  Especially students, and young adults.  As this morning’s (how is that for timing!) New York Times, in an article on a Trappist Monastery, did put it:  Young adults may be drawn to (their) culture of mindfulness, stillness, and inward experience. Here is the way, in brief, Thomas Merton spoke of vocation:

Merton

Saints…(are) sanctified by leading ordinary lives in a completely supernatural manner. 62

Souls are like athletes that need opponents worthy of them. 92

The quietness and hiddenness and placidity of the truly good people in the world all proclaim the glory of God.  142.

The only way to live was to live in a world that was charged with the presence and the reality of God. 208.

That happiness which makes upper New York state seem in my memory to be so beautiful. 219

Virtue—without which there can be no happiness. 223.

The intellect is only theoretically independent of desire and appetite in ordinary, actual practice. 225

While we were sitting there on the floor playing records and eating this breakfast the idea came to me: ‘I am going to be a priest’. 277 (But: I had a kind of conviction:  I was going to be a Trappist).  366.

What was the difference between one place and another, one habit and another, if your life belonged to God, and if you placed yourself completely in his hands? 406

Thomas Merton this Lent has given us courage for the wilderness, gratitude for the Sacrament, the Spirit for contemplation, and, today, at the last, a gladness in vocation.

North Country

That same courage, gratitude, spirit and gladness we knew for decades in rural, agricultural, small town, country living, the people and voices and communion of which we cherish by heart.  Some of our graduates this May will themselves go and live for a while in the woods.  As did Thoreau.  Those fine seminarians with us this morning, finishing their three years of study, and about to be assigned to a pulpit on July 1, take with them our heartfelt love and encouragement, and our reminder that all vocational searching, and all astute theological reflection, is not confined to urban schools of theology.  We left our friend, last week, remember, riding her horse away from church in August of 1982.  She left a letter, acutely and rightly critical of the Methodism she was learning.  She was a premier wood carver, making light beautiful wood crosses for all families who suffered a loss.  Her spiritual, vocational, and theological reflection—out in the woods—compares her love of wood carving with her difficulty with religion.  The corrects, here, a mistaken, though well-intentioned, overemphasis in Methodism.  All the celebration in my own tradition of experience of God’s presence, if not tended, drown out the genuine and regular experience of God’s absence: doubt and faith are twin daughters of the divine.  Listen to this wood carving Native American lay woman, and astute theologian in her own right, from years ago, comparing wood carving and religion:

And as I was thus discovering why I liked working with wood, I thought why I do not like working with religion.  I would gladly give it up if it were not for this bothersome and rather uncontrollable compulsion to try jus at little longer, just one more time, just one more approach.  I have found with most things, given the proper tools, I can, with dogged patience and perseverance, attain a state near enough to perfection to be at least satisfying.

But religion, worst of all, because I cannot determine where to lay the blame.  Worst of all, because I do not know if I am striving for something that is unattainable for me, because of basic lack or insufficiency or incompleteness.  Or is my technique wrong—my approach—my tools—my plans—my information? As I work on a piece of wood, progress is made, I can see it, I can feel it, taking shape, and if I must begin again, I do, because I know in the end that piece of would will become what I want it to become—I will be satisfied, even with the nick of shame it will surely carry—it will be good enough.

But religion—unattainable faith—unfathomable understanding—untouchable God.  Even if he knocks, I feel, I have come to wonder if it is that my door has not been furnished with the normal and necessary attachment—a door knob.  For if I try—really try—it should get better—but it doesn’t.  If I begin again, determination will see it take shape, but it doesn’t.

I read just last week something in the small book, “Understanding the United Methodist Church” which I found disheartening.  But it said, in reference to ‘The Witness of the Spirit’:

“It means that the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer and does give him a first-hand assurance that he is a child of God”…and again…”United Methodists rejoice in the knowledge that God does certify unmistakably to each believer when his salvation is sure”…

Not hope.  Or think.  But know.  That is the perfection.  And I am not satisfied with less, nor am I able to make any progress toward that goal.  Nor can I throw it all away like a chunk of wood.  For it worries me like a dog worries a bare and useless bone, unwilling to spit it out and let it go.  Perhaps there is yet some marrow in it worth digging out.

I would, had I the choice, stick with the wood.

All of our traditions, including the perfectionism of Methodism, have some things that need, as this carpenter saw, to be sanded away. Paul Tillich had her answer:  doubt is a part of faith, and faith with no doubt is no faith at all but false faith.  I hope I was able to preach or teach or say that, so many years ago.   Seminarians will take their first pulpits July 1 of this year.  Maybe they think that real, true, hard, theological work, interpretative work, will not be needed or required in those small, rural, poor, less formally educated, agricultural, multiple appointments.  Maybe they think for all that they will need an urban pulpit, or a college community, or a smooth suburban lawn-scape, or an advanced degree.  Maybe they think there is no real ammunition in the verbal and spiritual rifles of first appointments or second appointments or poor churches that cannot pay their apportionments.  Maybe they think it won’t matter whether they read their Tillich or not, read their Ecclesiastes or not, read their Galatians or not, read their Merton or not.  It will.  Big league.  In the rough and tumble of pastoral life, the sturdiest vocation will be tested.  And should be.

Coda

This is a sermon with a question for you.  What is the color of your parachute, the shape of your sail, the grain of your wood, the you that is not what another says of you, the self at your own most self?  What is your vocation, your calling, your life as it most fully can become?  A little Lenten reflection, alongside a bright young Roman Catholic fellow who had to climb up a seven storey mountain to find his answer, may be a bit of help to each and all of us.

‘If anyone serve me, he must follow me, and where I am there my servant shall be also’. (John 12: 26)