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Remembering Elie Wiesel

Sunday, September 17th, 2017

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Exodus 14:19-31

Romans 14:1-12

Matthew 18: 21-35

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Bildungsoman

            After some significant internal struggle, come Senior year of college, I finally decided to go to seminary.

            That spring I visited Harvard, Boston University, Yale and Union. I stood outside the chapel here, and have a picture to prove it. Union in New York was easily the right place, for me. In part I went on the advice of a friend that ‘a year of seminary never hurt any one’. Once in for a penny, I was in for a pound, and really never looked back. Your calling is what you sense is your best response to God. And that can change. In fact, you need to practice the art of ‘editing your dreams’. They need writing, but they editing too.

What a world opened up in New York City at Union! How grateful I am. The urban world, the ecumenical world, the theological world, the biblical world, the world of the gospel and its preachment. It is an embarrassment to admit to you how little I knew about the Bible, for all my parsonage tenure, small Methodist college degree, summer camp leadership, and generational background. I knew nada. And into that mental wasteland vacuum swept Samuel Terrien, George Landes, Raymond Brown and Lou Martyn, four horsemen of the apocalypse, to furnish its empty mental apartment books shelves with, well, books. I fell in love with the Bible, with the Strange World of the Bible. There too were James Forbes, Cornell West, Chrisopher Morse, Linda Clark (who later came here), Horace Allen (who came here later), and many others. William Sloane Coffin came into the Riverside pulpit. Across the street was the Jewish Theological Seminary, whence Abraham Heschel had come in the autumn afteroons to walk around Grant’s Tomb with Reinhold Niebuhr, just a few years earlier. That image of interreligious, interfaith theological discourse inspires still.

It happened that Union was in the throes of a renaissance of sorts, and the President, Donald Shriver had somehow convinced Robert McAfee Brown, a longtime Union alumn, faculty member, and Union family member if you will, to leave his beloved California haunts and come back to New York, with his wife Sydney (a missionary’s daughter). Bob and Sydney met in the summer home of Reinhold Neihbuhr near Heath, MA—they were in that sense god-children of the Neihbuhrs and so of that tradition at Union. Brown stayed at Union only three years, but they were the very three I was there. He had been the Protestant Observer at Vatican II and taught a course we fought to gain entrance too, titled, the Ecumenical Revolution.   He knew about Heschel and Neibuhr walking in the autumn light on Riverside Drive very well because—he fell and love and got married under Neibuhr’s roof. Brown encouraged us to go and work in 1978 at the World Council of Churches, in Swizerland, in the Office of Urban Ministry, run by the one and only George Todd, Brown’s fellow Presbyterian. Due to health issues, we left Union and New York suddenly and precipitously in February of 1979. In that early winter of 1979 we retreated to a church in Ithaca, to heal and to begin the work of ministry, among the students at ‘godless Cornell’.

Before we left, perhaps a week or so before, Bob and Sydney Brown held a winter dinner party in their home, which was an apartment in McGiffert Hall, under the wing of Riverside Church along Claremont Avenue. It may have been, if memory serves, that the dinner guests were his seminar students and spouses or friends from the course on the Ecumencial Revolution. Many things for us were unsettled at the time, a time of existential fright and anxiety. The welcome, the warm welcome of that home, the dim awareness we had of who Brown was, who the Browns were, and their very humble circumstance, hospitality and kindness to 2.5 itinerant Methodists stands out after forty years. Robert McAfee Brown had a special reason for the dinner, because he had invited a special guest, colleague and friend of his, whom he had met at Stanford, but who was also now in New York, though he spent a part of each week in Boston. Our dinner guest had been invited to a University Professorship here at Boston University by then President John Silber, and, after some hesitation, as I understand it, he accepted. In a way, Brown’s firm, lasting friendship with Wiesel, at least it seemed to me, reflected the friendship of the earlier generation between Reinhold Niebuhr and Abraham Heschel (who delivered Neibuhr’s funeral eulogy in Stockbridge MA, 1971, just 5 years before we arrived at Union). So it was that we came to know Elie Wiesel.

Robert McAfee Brown’s vision of the oikoumene included Elie Wiesel, his celebrated dinner guest that snowy evening in 1979. By precept and example, then, Brown taught us to consider thinking and living in the same way. The later edition of NIGHT comes with an introduction by RM Brown, after which Brown wrote his full book, Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity, which includes this passage: I have tried very hard, my friend, not to write this book. At every stage it seemed a tampering with things I had no right to touch. But because each exposure to your work moves me more deeply, I fell compelled to share of portion of what you have given me. To receive and not to share—that would be a denial of all I have learned from you. You have said that to be a Jew means to testify; such must also be the obligation of a Christian. And you have taught us all—Jews, Christians, and all humanity—that before testifying ourselves, we must liest to the testimony of others. I have tried to listen to your testimony. And now I feel obligated…to testify (p. vi.)

 There is a gracious power in hospitality, like that which Professor Wiesel showed us in the Browns’ residence, forty years ago. It lasts, the warmth and authenticity of it, they last. Said Unamuno: ‘Warmth, warmth, warmth! We are dying of cold, not of darkness. It is not the night that kills, but the frost’. (Not the night of unknowing, but the frost of unloving—that is what kills). Speaking of night…

Night

Through the eighties I pursued a PhD at McGill. As the dissertation was slowly writing itself—we shall sell no wine before its time!—I began teaching in various schools. Montreal had an excellent film library, free and substantive, which I would raid on occasion for the course taught in community colleges along the border, up north. One perennial was a reel to reel film of Professor Wiesel.

Later still, the dissertation simmering nicely on the back burner for most of a decade—do not take my example—in teaching at Lemoyne College, Syracuse, we read NIGHT, as so many have done over the years. The course prepared the way for it by use of another film—ancient technology—ON RITUAL, whose JTS lead figure was Professor Gillman, whose daughter Abigail is now our colleague her at BU. Gillman: ‘The central Jewish vision is that whole world made holy: all of life raised to its deepest and highest level’. The film follows the annual, weekly, and daily ritual life of woman named Carol, one of the first women to enter the rabbinate in Conservative Judaism, and so teaches about Sabbath, and then about Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Booths, Hannukah, Purim and Passover. Ritual brings order to life.

Wiesel was the quintessential teacher. His books carried his voice out across the globe. Those who studied with him here regularly remember his remembrance of them. My Norwegian friend vividly remembers Professor Wiesel gradually getting him to come out his shell, by telling funny stories. Our students in the small Catholic School, where most were the first in their families to attend college, connected with him from afar. In particular, the students always read and could always fully engage Wiesel’s book. I taught it by showing the points at which the ten commandments were engaged or broken (pps 50, 59, 71, 73, 90, and others). I never had a chance to ask him whether that was a fair way to teach the book, and whether he had the Decalogue in view for its structure. We learned from Wiesel and his book by raising questions. What is the central theme of the book? What is its weakest point? How do you describe the ‘voice’ of the author? Which scene did you dislike most? What other writing does it recall? What would you ask the author if he were here today?

All of us are far more human than anything else, including and especially those who remind us best of our own best selves, like Professor Wiesel. There is I am sure a full set of observations in loving critique that can and should be raised, and will be in the sessions offered this morning and afternoon in his honor. I wonder, for instance, just how inclusive his perspective was with regard to gay people. I wonder about his relationship with non-Orthodox Judaism. Like every sermon, every life has its points of challenge. But I, for one, have been deeply and lastingly influenced by the life and work of this one who lectured to us here thrice each autumn over 40 years.

Franklin Littell, the first Dean of Marsh Chapel, was not in the habit of mincing words. One ongoing application for those of us who have been seized by the confession of the church, who have been loved by the faithfulness of Christ, is to look again, to look long, to look hard at the Holocaust. We have yet to understand what happened to Christianity in the dark abyss, the hellish, ghoulish fire of Auschwitz. Crucified, Judaism has risen from the dead. But what will become of Christianity? Will there arise a movement from religion to faith? Will there appear on the earth a religionless Christianity? Seventy years later, and the clock is ticking:

Nazism was in no sense a revolt against ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’. Neither was it ‘secularist’. Quite the contrary: in its central creed the party affirmed a devotion to ‘positives Christentum’. The Fuhrer and other party orators made constant reference to ‘divine providence’, ‘spiritual renewal’, ‘moment of decision’, ‘immortal destiny’…and the like. Many of the party hymns were simply new words written to popular gospel songs, with the same brass bands marching and evoking from crowds the same emotional response. The key question, and here the issue of ‘heresy’ arises, is why the millions of baptized and confirmed Christians had no sense that they were now responding to visions and programs antithetical to the biblical faith. (F Little. The Crucifixion of the Jews. 70)

            Yet it was not finally the acute academic work of Littell and others that brought a fuller witness to and understanding of the holocaust to the American conscience. That work was largely the influence of Wiesel. Just think back to the most horrific and jarring passage in NIGHT: 

“The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him. This time the camp executioner refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.

 The victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses. “Long live Liberty!” cried the two adults. But the child was silent.

 “Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked.

 At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.

Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. “Bare your heads!” yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping. “Cover your heads!”

 Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive… 

For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. Behind me I heard the same man asking: “Where is God now?”

And I hear a voice within me answer him: “Where is he? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows. . . ” (Night, 78)

             There is a fierce power in memory. Marcel Proust with his madeleine moment teaches us best: a single minute released from the chronological order of time has re-created in us the human being similarly released…situated outside the scope of time, what could one fear from the future…(these are) resurrections of the past (Proust, RTP, II, 992, 996).

Vespers

            From your own losses, your own experience of loss, you will know perhaps the power of kindness in the hour of grief. Our manner of grief, the way we grieve, is about the most personal thing about us—more individual than our eye color, height, skin pigmentation, gait, or fingerprint. Our friends and loves ones give us ourselves, and when we lose them we lose whole body parts, full and veritable pieces of our own most selves. For some grief is light, for others heavy, for some tearfilled for others ‘not something we cry about’, for some long and for others short, for some traumatic and for others timely then gone. At least, we could be aware for others of others manner of grief, and respect what we can see and know and understand.

Our Gospel lesson today, neither taken from St. Mark nor from ‘Q’, but from the particular reservoir of Matthew’s own sources (it is not found elsewhere), stands out, up and alone, and hardly needs interpretation. Is there not a poignancy in this pericope, not unlike that known in grief, the recollection of a beloved teacher? The parable itself is as clear as a bell, and as plain as the nose on your face (or, plainer still, as the nose on mine). You have been loved, now love. Greatly have you been forgiven, so greatly now forgive. IBD, Matthew 18: 21-35: ‘Man can have no more important privilege that to mediate to others the forgiveness which he himself experiences.’

In the weeks following my Father’s death seven years ago, there came many expressions of condolence, all of which were deeply appreciated, personally meaningful, and part of the healing, or the healing in grieving, or the health in grieving. It is a sacrament of sorts, grief is, as one friend said. At that time, June 2010, one of our leading choristers and dear friends worked here at the University. She was and is at the heart of Marsh Chapel to this date, even though she and her husband and children live in France. Her French is impeccable. Here, at the University, she worked as an assistant to Professor Elie Wiesel. At the time of my dad’s death I received from her a note I cherish today, still:

Dean Hill –

Professor Wiesel asked me to send you the following message.

Ondine

 

Dear friend,

My deepest condolences. In our tradition we say: may you be spared

further sorrow.

Elie Wiesel

            There is a poignant power in kindness. Abraham Heschel: “Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same.”

Coda

 Remember the words of Psalm 139…

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

 

Peter Berger: A Rumor of Angels

Saturday, September 16th, 2017

Alumni Memorial Service 

                     After my dad died seven years ago we began to go through his things, as families do. Desk, tools, books, guns, clothes. (Order, play, hope, justice, humor). We did not make much progress at first. After three years I noted: ‘We still have not made that much. His desk, somewhat more ordered, is laden drawer after drawer. The many tools, both inherited from earlier generations and purchased as needed over a life time, still lie here and there in the basement. A doll house, made for a granddaughter and then taken in for repairs years ago, and then left unattended, did migrate to the home of the great grand daughter. The guns—a relic of another time in the woods and deer hunting of northern New York—were carefully removed by two lawyer siblings. The papers and records now are in boxes with little titles—an improvement of sorts. His clothes still hang in the old closet’.

I was either assigned or self assigned or asked (or not) to begin to take care of the books, forty years worth of books in the lifetime library of a Methodist preacher whose preaching teacher at Boston University, Allan Knight Chalmers, for whom I was named, had admonished his pupils to read one book every day.   That is to say, there were more than a few books to look through.

I dawdled, lollygagged, procrastinated, avoided, and otherwise shirked my solemn duty. I asked all those I could to go through the library and take at least two books. The books are mostly signed and dated, and of course they have the personal underlining and notes which are typical for most of us. I appropriated a few: a set of Jacques Ellul, for a Lenten series two years ago; a few books from BU—Booth, Chalmers, Bowne; sermon collections from Weatherhead, Gomes, Tittle, Fosdick; others.   But I found my progress slow and slower. With each book, my willingness to skim and skip diminished. I found my intrigue at his notes increasing, and my attention to his underlining expanding. I dream on and off of a large oak door, heavy with metal locks and frame, unopened, chained shut: my dad on one side and I on the other. In the lasting grief I feel at the earthly loss of my dad, it has happened that his preacher’s library has become a kind of spiritual bridge, a mode of ongoing conversation between us.

There is range of life through which there radiates, like morning sunlight, high and deep and piercingly real experience. Most of this range of experience is not, or not only, in worship or liturgy or ecclesiastical involvement or patterned devotion—these are of course crucial and important, but more as signposts than as the actual meadows and still waters of religious, that is to say non-religious, religious experience.

One day this summer, on one of my less than fruitful forays into the library, I came upon a book, the title of which is borrowed for this morning’s sermon (A Rumor of Angels: NY, Doubleday, 1969—portions quoted below found therein). Published in 1969, hardly more than 100 pages, accessible to clergy and lay alike, brisk and direct in style, sprinkled with salt and light in humor and aphorism, the book, it happens, was written by a Boston University colleague and friend of mine, the premier sociologist of religion of our time, Peter Berger. Professor Berger has graciously endured lunches and conversation, including some semi-successful jokes, with me over these last few years. I knew of this book, both its title and its general argument, which is that God is not dead, religion is not dead and religious experience is not entirely absent from this earthly vale of tears. But I had never read it. I stuffed the book in my bag.

It is hard to try to recreate the context, 1968, in which Berger was writing and thinking what hardly anyone else was thinking and writing. I will not try to do so. 1. But try to imagine, or remember, a time when Time magazine’s cover read, ‘Is God Dead?’, or 2. when the most potent religious word was ‘secular’, or 3. when administrative malfeasance led to a drug experiment on Good Friday in the basement of Marsh Chapel, or 4. when the most successful camp meeting was a mud soaked musical weekend in the Upstate New York village of Woodstock. Just when all hell was breaking loose, Berger wrote about heaven. Like debate participants try to do, he caused people to take a second look at something, or someone.

There is transcendence—he speaks of the ‘supernatural’—all about us. Maybe that is why you have come, together, to worship on this Alumni weekend. What are the signposts, the clues to transcendence we should look for—in our lived experience? Berger’s summary still works. You may be surprised by the clues he names, the rumors of angels he overhears…

First, give a little credit to your own blessed rage for order. Some of you are hoarders, of sorts, and bring order by refusing to get rid of anything. Others are the very opposite, ‘when in doubt throw it out’.   You have a desire to see things set right, one way or another. What were those kids doing at Woodstock, in the mud, listening to Janis Joplin, fifty years ago? They were shouting to the heavens that things were not right, that something was out of order. Berger: A. This is the human faith in order as such, a faith closely related to man’s fundamental trust in reality. This faith is experienced not only in the history of societies and civilizations, but in the life of each individual—indeed, child psychologists tell us there can be no maturation without the presence of this faith at the outset of the socialization process. B. Man’s propensity for order is grounded in a faith or trust that, ultimately, reality is ‘in order’, ‘all right’, ‘as it should be’. Do you have a longing for order? Underneath, just there, is a mode of religious experience. Talk a bit about it, parents and children.

Second, and swinging to a different spot, pause and meditate a little on your own enjoyment of play. 1. I see grown men enthralled on a green field following a wee little white ball, which seems to have a mind of its own, for three or four hours in the hot sun. 2. I see grown women shopping together without any particular need, but immersed, self forgetful, in the process of purchasing, God knows what. 3.I see emerging adults fixed and fixated, days on end, in the World of Warcraft. 4. Families were mesmerized this past summer, glued to gymnastics in England. 5. Can you remember playing bridge in college all night long, to the detriment of your zoology grade? Berger: A.In playing, one steps out of one time into another…When adults play with genuine joy, they momentarily regain the deathlessness of childhood…(Viewers of the recent film Moonrise Kingdom readily understand this). The experience of joyful play is not something that must be sought on some mystical margin of existence. It can readily be found in the reality of ordinary life…The religious justification of the experience can be achieved only in an act of faith…B.This faith is inductive—it does not rest on a mysterious revelation, but rather on what we experience in our common, ordinary lives…Religion is the final vindication of childhood and of joy, and of all gestures that replicate these. One said: “I played basketball today, on the intramural team—it was awesome.” Talk about it a bit, parents and children.

Third, we sense the (my word) supranatural, the transcendent, in the experience of hope. Hope does spring eternal in the human breast. Hope keeps us going when otherwise we would not. 1. You may have seen Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones dramatize this in the midst of their struggling marriage. The movie title: ‘Hope Springs’.   2. Parents hope their children will thrive in college. Students hope so too. So do professors and administrators and Deans of Chapels. We hope. There is something lasting, real, meaningful, costly and true about hope. 3. Where there is life there is hope. Better: where there is hope there is life. People with no regular religion at all know about hope, and its absence. Berger: A. Human existence is always oriented toward the future. Man exists by constantly extending his being into the future, both in his consciousness and in his activity. B. Put differently, man realizes himself in projects…It is through hope that men overcome the difficulties of the here and now. And it is through hope that men find meaning in the face of extreme suffering…There seems to be a death-refusing hope at the very core of our humanitas. While empirical reason indicates that this hope is an illusion, there is something in us that, however shamefacedly in an age of triumphant rationality goes on saying ‘no!’ and even says ‘no’ to the ever so plausible explanation of empirical reason…Faith takes into account the intentions within our natural experience of hope that point toward a supernatural fulfillment. I wonder if the generations sitting together in the pews this morning might, come Christmas, talk a bit about that most unreligious religious experience, a thing called hope, a place called hope, a time called hope, a feeling called hope?

Fourth, we have burning desire to see real justice done, and also to see massive injustice called to account. Berger uses, well, the word damnation. I am using slightly different language because I cannot make his argument as well with this word this morning. It is too loaded. But the heart of the intention is true and strong. We want people who get away with murder not ultimately to get away with murder. E Brunner, after WWII, was asked why he spoke about the devil: Said he: Two reasons. Jesus did. And I have seen him. When we think of mass murder, of horrific injustice, intentionally and painstakingly executed, we demand justice. There is something down deep in the human heart that just will not let things go. This is not about forgiveness. It is about retributive justice. Sometimes young people have a keener sense of this than their elders. Berger: This refers to experiences in which our sense of what is humanly permissible is so fundamentally outraged that the only adequate response to the offense as well as to the offender seems to be a curse of supernatural dimensions…A. There are certain deeds that cry out to heaven…Not only are we constrained to condemn, and to condemn absolutely, but ,if we should be in a position to do so, we would feel constrained to take action on the basis of that certainty…B.Deeds that cry out to heaven also cry out for hell…No human punishment is enough in the case of deeds as monstrous as these…(this is) a moral order that transcends the human community and thus invokes a retribution that is more than human. When adults talk as adults, younger with older, there arise memories and understandings, dark in hue and deep in sentiment, that call out for an extraordinary, unearthly, transcendent justice. How shall we talk about these? Talk a bit, bit by bit, in the years to come, parents and children.

Fifth, one can sense the horizon of heaven, the transcendent radiance of mystery, the supranatural or supernatural, in the simple experience of humor, perhaps the very polar opposite of the cry for retributive justice. 1. Here I will pause to tell an ostensibly humorous story. I was asked to pray at the start of a billion dollar campaign. My reply: ‘It would be my pressure—I mean my pleasure.’ 2. People ask about interreligious life on campus and I say: ‘The Hindus are the most Christian people I deal with’. 3. Phyllis Diller died this year. You remember her husband: Fang. You remember her mother in law: Moby Dick. You remember her sister in law: Captain Bligh. You remember her self deprecation (‘I once wore peek a boo blouse. One man peeked and then shouted ‘boo!’). You remember her cackling laughter. Humor, real humor, stops time still. ‘He who sits in the heavens shall laugh’, says the psalmist. Berger: There is one fundamental discrepancy from which all other comic discrepancies are derived—the discrepancy between man and the universe…A. The comic reflects the imprisonment of the human spirit in the world…B.Humor mocks the ‘serious’ business of the world and the might who carry it out…Power is the final illusion, while laughter reveals the final truth…It is the Quixote’s hope rather than Sancho Panza’s ‘realism’ that is ultimately vindicated, and the gestures of the clown have a sacramental dignity. When you gather at Thanksgiving table, after the prayer and before the turkey, tell one funny story, or one joke, or one humorous memory. Talk a bit, talk a bit, talk a bit, parents and children.

Here is our theme: Order, play, hope, justice, humor: religious experiences without recourse to religion. You may not be so religious, or so you think. But do you create order, and crave play, and desire hope, and long for justice, and enjoy humor? These are signs, for you, signs of something else, something lasting and true and good and extraordinary. Talk a bit about it, parents and children. As Bonnie Raitt put it: let’s give them something to talk about!

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

A Season of Remembrance

Sunday, September 10th, 2017

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Matthew 18: 15-20

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Remembrance

            It felt so good last week to come back, after a summer of travel and preaching, to be at home in our church home, to lean forward from our home pulpit, that of which we are the current, temporary stewards.  It is like when you go away for a week, and you come home.  You turn the key in the latch.  You pick up the mail.  You turn on the light.  You open the refrigerator to see if anything has arrived or departed (why do we do that?).  And we take in, you savor, that sense, scent, sensibility of being home.  It connects you again to who you are, reminds you of who you are.

Last Sunday a couple who had been married at Marsh Chapel fifty years to the day earlier attended worship here.  Our attentive usher team made sure, amid Matriculation madness, that the dean had a chance to greet the happy couple.  We asked them their secret of success.  He replied, ‘She is the secret’.  He did not miss a beat.  They came to remember who they were, who they are, who they want to be.  Fifty years goes by more quickly than you might think.  They had connections with Kingston Ontario, and Queens College there—a beautiful college town, a fine school, along the lakeshore.

Our summer travels took us, as it happens, to Kingston, Ontario in the last days of June—near Queens college, in that beautiful college town, along the lakeshore.   We went in something of reminiscence, since decades earlier it had been a regular family vacation destination.  Then only 2 hours away; only a couple of hundred US dollars for a few days; only a ride across the Thousand Islands Bridge, and, wa-la, another land, another country, a different currency, a slight difference in inflection.  In those years we had gone, summer and winter, to a hotel with a big pool, an indoor gym, hot tub and sauna:  a place where the kids could play and the parents could enjoy seeing them do so.  What one would or would not give to return, for an hour or a day, to that young adult  happiness, in a Canadian hostel!  In the hot tub, we found ourselves with two couples, one French and one English speaking.  We watched as they watched as their kids did exactly what our kids used to do, in the same spot, the same splash, the same laugh, the same joy.  We talked as travelers do.  They four were headed the next day to Ottawa to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the birth of the Dominion of Canada.  All six of us could remember the World’s Fair, MAN AND HIS WORLD, from the Montreal of 1967.  All of us had been there.  They spoke of their new leader, son of a former Premier, Justin Trudeau.  They spoke plainly, eloquently, proudly, lovingly, and personally.   The English wife said, ‘You know, it’s just that, I mean, it’s just that…He reminds us of who we are, at our best’.  As in that moment we did refrain, so here in the sermon we will refrain from making any comparative remarks, regarding current Canadian and US leadership, as to what each has reminded us about.  ‘He reminds us of who we are’.

Who reminds you of your own most self, your own best selves?  You could ponder that this week, and let us know next Sunday.  Whose memory, whose books, whose voice, whose example, whose life and the living of it re-clothes you in your rightful mind?

Invitation

            With that question, we offer a word of invitation to you, an invitation to discipleship and through Marsh Chapel.  Welcome to the varied ministry of Marsh Chapel at Boston University!  We look forward to getting to know you, as you sign up to sing in a choir, as you volunteer to usher or greet, as you attend a fellowship or study group, and especially as you worship with us on Sunday at 11am!

The envisioned mission of Marsh Chapel is to be ‘a heart in the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city’.  To that end Dr. Jarrett will invite you to vocal expressions of faith in the life of our music program.  To that end Ms. Chicka will invite you to global outreach in our work with International students.  To that end Br. Whitney will invite you to take part and take leadership in campus student ministry.  To that end Mr. Bouchard will solicit your support for work and works in hospitality.  To that end I will invite you to formal membership, to joining Marsh Chapel, on October 22:  mark the date!

This year, with our emphasis on ‘voice, vocation, and volume’ in our shared life, we are using as a focus for our work the word remembrance.   Our fall and spring term worship and community life are laden with moments of remembrance.  2017-2018 is a full season of remembrance.  On September 17, we remember Elie Wiesel.  On October 29 (and again in November) we remember Martin Luther.  In Lent 2018 we remember Thomas Merton.  Then in April 2018, in the week following Easter, we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Come and join us throughout this year in a special season of remembrance!

Where I can be personally helpful to you, and where our staff, chaplains, and campus ministers can be a benefit and blessing to you, do not hesitate to call up on us.

John Wesley famously called for a means of grace to ‘spread scriptural holiness and reform the nation’. May grace expand and extend in meaning for us in the fall term, 2017!

A Season of Remembrance

            Elie Wiesel reminded and reminds us, at Boston University, of who we are.  From the very first day of the life of this University, the school has welcomed with open arms all people, regardless of gender, race, or religion.  Women, Blacks, Jews—all—matriculated with day one.  Today we would quickly add—all religions, all nationalities, all sexual identities, all varieties of physical abilities.  Wiesel’s lectures, attended by more than a thousand a night, thrice each fall, in a stroke set a moral compass for the year’s study.  Every era, though few quite as despicably as our own, tempts us, particularly public leadership, to sacrifice moral judgment for the sake of political opportunity.  To sacrifice moral judgment for the sake of political opportunity.  It is not only a leader taking us, say, toward authoritarianism who is to be resisted and rejected, but it is also and more so those who, without recantation, abet and abide with that leadership, those who are collaborators, who use the same language, who take the same partisan identity, who quietly allow the drip by drip accretion of unfettered power that leads to the great hurricane of later trouble.  It starts with a few drops.  Wiesel reminds us at BU of who we are.

Martin Luther reminded and reminds us, in Religious Life, of who we are.  Many are the difficulties to arranging a proper, nuanced recollection of Luther, Protestant Reformer, Biblical Genius, Person of Courage–and Virulent Anti-Semite.  Down and up, though, for ill and good, he reminds us that religion is indeed like the weather.  Sometimes sunshine, sometimes rain, never perfect, and in need of steady meteorological, that is to say, theological prediction and predilection.  To be a protestant is to apply the protestant principle, as did Luther, and to subject religion to utterly, fully religious critique. (It was Paul Tillich who best did articulate the protestant principle, that all authority, including and especially religious authority, is subject to critique when it makes what is relative, absolute).  The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  You see how sharply our moments of remembrance do diverge this year, from Wiesel to Luther and beyond.  SEMPER REFORMANDUM.  Sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura, but SEMPER REFORMANDUM.  The Gospel in St. Matthew today, a rehearsal of an inherited Jewish tradition, with a remarkable and telling late use of the word ‘church’, ECCLESIA, certainly many decades after Jesus, itself places us in this ongoing reformation, from the first century on.  Luther reminds us in Religious Life of who we are.

We will trust to Thomas Merton to remind us, as he did in life, of the better angels of Christian nature.  His artistic spirit, his international range, his mysticism, his Catholicism, his brilliant writing along the climb up life’s SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN, have much to commend them, for us just now.  This is an age in this country when a group of nine or so religious leaders in Nashville, who having studied the Bible surely know better, can stand together and dehumanize 10% of the world’s population, straight forwardly dehumanizing anyone not straight.  This is a season in which 81% of Evangelical Christians have supported the recent cultural affirmation of white nationalism, without so much as a fare thee well, and, to date, without recantation.  Here is the bottom line:  You shall love the God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  The reason your dean ended up preaching\ speaking 18 times not 8 this summer is in part that there is a wide-open field out there for Christian preaching that is biblical, traditional, theological and practical—that is, in a word, liberal.  Who is to speak for the full, deep, wide, global body of Christianity—the Nashville 9 and the Evangelical 81? Or the deeper wisdom of scripture, tradition, reason and experience? The deeper wisdom of the church has not yet found full voice or hearing, over against the conservative cacophony.  It will.  But it will take a decade, and the capacity to endure humiliation for a decade.  A light touch, a little whimsy, and deep wisdom: Merton reminds us as global Christians of who we are.

Come April, we will turn toward Martin Luther King, Jr.  We will need to do so, to recognize and honor his sacrifice, the loss of his life in and for the cause of Right.  While most are not yet across the land, or even our community, focused on the season, this will make 50 years since King was murdered, April 4, 2018.  Whatever others may not or may do, Marsh Chapel, we have a song to sing, a bell to ring, a word to say, and a responsibility to meet.  The statue out front, the doves, the remembrance of King, does not give us the endless troubles that schools near and far are having with their own statues.  My brother is proud graduate of the law school at Washington and Lee, for instance.  But it does ask something of us, and specifically of you, Marsh Chapel. With every gift, there comes a task, in the economy of grace.  It asks of us a season of remembrance.  Our cultural amnesia leading toward fascism, our Christological amnesia leading toward exclusion, our collegiate amnesia leading toward silence finally stand under the shadow of the King statue.  King reminds us as the Marsh Chapel congregation, virtual and actual, past and future, tithing and non-tithing, you and me and all, of who we are.

A Word of Faith in a Pastoral Voice toward a Common Hope

We await a common hope, a hope that our warming globe, caught in climate change, will be cooled by cooler heads and calmer hearts and careful minds.

We await a common hope, a hope that our dangerous world, armed to the teeth with nuclear proliferation, will find peace through deft leadership toward nuclear détente.

We await a common hope, a hope that our culture, awash in part in hooliganism, will find again the language and the song and the spirit of the better angels of our nature.

We await a common hope, a hope that our country, fractured by massive inequality between rich children and poor children, will rise up and make education, free education, available to all children, poor and rich.

We await a common hope, a hope that our nation, fractured by flagrant unjust inequality between rich and poor children, will stand up and make health care, free health care, available to all children, poor and rich.

We await a common hope, a hope that our schools, colleges and universities, will balance a love of learning with a sense of meaning, a pride in knowledge with a respect for goodness, a drive for discovery with a regard for recovery.

We await a common hope, a hope that our families, torn apart by abuse and distrust and anger and jealousy and unkindness, will sit at a long Thanksgiving table, this autumn, and share the turkey and pass the potatoes, and slice the pie, and, if grudgingly, show kindness and pity to one another.

We await a common hope, a hope that our decisions in life about our callings, how we are to use our time and spend our money, how we make a life not just a living, will be illumined by grace and generosity.

We await a common hope, a hope that our grandfathers and mothers, in their age and infirmity, will receive care and kindness that accords with the warning to honor father and mother that you own days be long upon the earth.

We await a common hope, finally a hope not of this world, but of this world as a field of formation for another, not just creation but new creation, not just life but eternal life, not just health but salvation, not just heart but soul, not just earth, but heaven.

Coda

            Wiesel said, ‘He who hears a witness becomes a witness’.  He reminds us of who we are at Boston University.

Luther said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me’.  He reminds us of who we are in Religious Life.

Merton said, ‘Love is my true identity.  Selflessness is my true self.  Love is my true character.  Love is my name’.  He reminds us who we are as Christian people.

King said, ‘The moral arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice’.  He reminds us of who we are at Marsh Chapel.

Come and join us!  I mean it.  Come and join us for this year in worship, fellowship, and discipleship.  Come and join us in this season of remembrance!

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

Spiritual Life in College

Sunday, September 3rd, 2017

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Exodus 3

Romans 12

Matthew 16:21-28

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Spiritual Life in College

Walk

                        There is a great rush, a wind of life, energy, and hope with which every school year begins. May we not ever miss the privilege and joy of this Matriculation moment. Here you are, having bid farewell to mother and father, and said hello to Alma Mater. Your own life, your own most life, your second but truly first life now begins, or commences in another way. We should, all, remove our sandals, for this holy ground. ‘I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Spiritual life in college, as in all life, but in a particularly particular way, causes you to walk, to walk pretty, to walk in a certain way. You will walk in a moment down Commonwealth Avenue, whose more Eastern blocks Winston Churchill called ‘the most beautiful street in America’. He was not wrong. Like the heart beating lub-dub, like spirit and flesh engaged together, like ear and eye, mind and heart, sol y sombra, one two, one foot two foot, hay foot straw foot, you are on the trail. I take my hat off to you, and bow before you, as did St Vincent De Paul before his students, with the dim awareness that in your midst is genius, somewhere someone somehow.

Boston is the country’s best walking city, a pedestrian palace of nature and culture. You know from the SAT the French phrase, ‘flaneur dans le rue’, to saunter down the street with no especial task, just the breathing joy of breathing, and so you are a flaneur of the spirit. Walk. Walk at dawn. Walk. Walk in the mid day. Walk. Walk in the evening. Walk in the sunshine and especially the snow. But walk. And for those otherwise abled, guide the walkers with a sense of strength in difference.

Come Sunday, that’s the day, walk to worship, walk to church, walk to the Chapel. It is the one walk most needed, on which all the rest in some balefully unappreciated measure does depend. You are child of God. Walk here and hear so.

Listen

                        Now the spiritual life takes shape. Here you are. Come and listen. Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century set out his orders for his order, beginning with the first and most important. Listen. It is not what you see but what hear that matters, lasts, counts, gives meaning. Faith comes by hearing not scanning. Hearing comes by the Word of God, not the words of a screen. Tweet, tweet. The eye is the window of the soul. The keyboard is not the window of the soul. What holds, molds, scolds, folds, for youngs and olds, is in the hearing. We have three regular blind parishioners who will remind you, in their faithfulness, of the primacy of the ear. Listen.

Listen for what is not said, for the dog that does not bark. Listen for what engages, and for what enrages, both. Listen to the sounds of silence. Listen for a word of faith offered in a pastoral voice toward the prospect of a common hope. Listen for a word of faith offered in a pastoral voice toward the prospect of a common hope. “Dad, I heard something fantastic the other day. It went like this…’ We have two ears, and one tongue.

What Jesus said in 30ad is written down at last by Matthew in 85ad. There was a long line of listening, hearing, sharing, speaking, long before the writing. In part we know this because the two saying here are at odds, one offering to hearing and faith the paradox of saving and losing life: you only have, only possess, only truly hold what you have the power, grace, freedom and courage to give away. If you do not have it, you cannot give it. If you give it, truly, you then show you have owned it.   The sayings were written down together in Matthew 16 because they shared a tag word—life. What can you give in exchange for your life? (Here the message is conservative: hold on, flee false forfeit, prize life now you have it). Whoever saves his life will lose it, and whoever loses is life will find it. (Here the message is liberal: splash around with generosity, give with no thought of return, take up the cross, follow). The two teachings are at daggers drawn. Which one for which day on which way will you say? It’s up to you. Over time, you will need them both. Listen. Tune your ear to God.   Life is short.

Read

                        As today, so every Lord’s day, much is read, come Sunday. A love of reading conjured in college—for this we pray for one and all.   Not scanning. Reading.   Reading will take you out beyond and behind the twin towers of your birth. You have come of age in the shadow of the toppled towers, class of 2021.   You were born in the shadow of two falling, flaming towers. You came to breath under the ash cloud of nineleven. Its soot and its debris and its loss. In 2011, ten years on, as University Chaplain I telephoned the BU families, some 50, who had suffered loss that day. Some I could not reach. Some hung up. Some listened, offered thanks, and bade farewell. Some paused and spoke, in remembrance. In the shadow of the World Trade Center.

Yet there is, by analogy, another set of towers that came down as you came up.   At your birth two great towers fell. The tower of peace. The tower of voice. Terror toppled the tower of peace. Technology toppled the tower of voice. In that era, 15 or twenty years ago, extremism emerged to quash peace. In that era, 15 or 20 years ago, the internet emerged to quash voice. The latter, the loss of voice to the omnivorous screen, is by far the more pernicious. Tweet, tweet. Though, with a nod to Stockholm, and its syndrome, a whole generation, global, has come to love it. We kiss our captor. We snuggle up to our tormentor. See where we have come. T plus T equals T. Terror plus Technology equals Trump. F plus F equals F. Fear plus Falsehood equals Fascism. Tweet, tweet.

Read. Thereby you escape the confines of the early 21st century. Are there no other escape routes? No. You read. While other party, you read. While others drink, you read. While others play, you read.   You will come to a great land that has been awaiting your arrival. It is the land of memory. See the meadow, bright in the morning! Memory. Hear the chorus of birdsong at dawn! Memory. Now you are ready to move into memory in reading.   Pick a favorite verse. Read it well enough to commit it to memory. Dr. Jones at Trinity College said last week, When you start to memorize you start to notice the things you notice, your own habits of attention, your habits of reading. As the congregation knows by frequent infliction, today’s epistle is one of mine. (Let love genuine…). Reading will take you to a land of memory, the location of a deeper story.

Think

                        Heather Heyer’s mother spoke clearly about the spiritual life, as she gave grieving lament for her daughter’s death.   You come of age in a dark time in the history of our land, a decade of humiliation under the aegis of leadership devoted to ethnic nationalism. We are one year in, or almost so. It will take nine more, or more, before we are on the brighter path again. You will want and need to think how we got here. Start with Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. You dwell in the tenth floor of a building whose first three stories were constructed with stolen land and enslaved labor, free land and free labor, for the benefit of anyone who had or used money, then or now.

You have the subsidized freedom, for four years or more or less, to think. Think things through. Think from the top down and the bottom up. Go where others are trying to think, and think with them. Challenge them. Question them. Press them. See what lasts. I am not afraid of the Gospel. It is the power of salvation to all who believe, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. As it is written, ‘the righteous shall live by faith’.

You remember what the bereft mother of a college age daughter killed in Charlottesville by a marauding white racist driver, and a marauding white racist crowd, and marauding white racist leadership said, quietly, said, gently, said truly, said directly to a feckless, heedless national leadership, ostensibly the soggenante leadership of the free world: Think before you speak. Think before you speak.

                        Spiritual life—walk, listen, read, think—spiritual life true to your own-most self, is the only primary nourishment you will need for the next four years. Or the next forty. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?

 

“WE ARE NOT TO SIMPLY BANDAGE THE WOUNDS OF VICTIMS BENEATH THE WHEELS OF INJUSTICE, WE ARE TO DRIVE A SPOKE INTO THE WHEEL ITSELF.” Bonhoeffer

 

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

 

Surprised, Touched, Inspired

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

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Deuteronomy 30:11-14

Ephesians 3:14-21

Matthew 8:5-13

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Conversation is part of the fabric of human interaction. Our words can hurt or heal, divide or unite, create community or chaos. The recent violence in Charlottesville has sparked conversation about free speech, racism, antisemitism, national leadership, and the inherent values of our nation.

Robert A. Brown, the President of Boston University sent a letter to the community this week in which he said:

“As we seek in our democracy and our academic community to appreciate and understand difference, we speak of tolerance and the fundamental importance of free speech and respect for diverse points of view.  But tolerance doesn’t necessarily imply or entail acceptance or approval.

Palpably evil acts, such as occurred in Charlottesville, invite the challenging question about what is and is not tolerable or morally acceptable in speech and accompanying deeds.”

President Brown’s letter continues: “I believe it is a view that is broadly shared in our community, that a claim of inherent racial or ethnic superiority is abhorrent.  We must, I believe, explicitly denounce white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups that make such claims.  The obligation of our community must be to hold fast to the values that are in our Boston University DNA.  As we participate in broader conversation in our society, we should seek to set a standard of civility and generosity of spirit in discourse that perhaps over time will be an illuminating counterpoint to the hate speech that threatens the very fabric of our republic.”

+ + +

In this time in our country when there is so much division and hurt, we do seek deep conversations that help move us into awareness and actions. Persons of faith also seek spiritual strength to guide us in our conversations and actions.

In Ephesians 3, St. Paul asks God to strengthen us by his Spirit—“not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength.”

Paul says: “And I ask God, that with both of your feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.”

Today I want to talk about 3 conversations that help bring us into the fullness of God, so that we can serve in a fragile world with inner strength and love.

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen is a pioneer in integrative medicine and relationship centered care.  Dr. Remen writes books, practices medicine, teaches and works with helping professionals and activists who are burned out, feel like they have given all they can give, are tired, annoyed or resentful, and don’t want to do it anymore.

In her workshops, Dr. Remen takes participants through three questions.

What positive thing surprised you today?

What touched you?

What inspired you recently?

All of three questions are directed at what we call the heart.

In Hebrew scripture, the heart is the place where human beings connect with God.

These vivifying questions open up the heart, the place of aliveness, compassion, energy, connection love, deep understanding. The Psalmist knows about the importance of opening the heart.  The Psalmist says:

Create in me a clean heart O God,

and renew within me a right spirit.

Let’s examine each of these questions starting with the question:

What surprised you?

In the healing story of Jesus in Matthew 8, Jesus is approached by a Centurion (a high ranking Roman military official) who says:

Sir, my servant  is home, paralyzed, racked with pain and paralyzed.  

Jesus responds without hesitation: “I will come and cure him.”

 

The Centurion says:

I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. You are the great healer. Just say the word and my servant will be healed.

Scripture says that Jesus was astonished. Really, really, really surprised.  For one thing, a centurion would never say that he is unworthy.  He had a power position. Jesus said, “Nowhere I have found such faith. Go home and so let it be done for you according to your faith. And the servant was healed in that hour.”

What does being surprised do?  Surprise wakes us up. Surprise almost has a gasp quality to it. Our perception of how the world works shifts, making way for a new reality that has unlimited possibilities.

In that new reality I ask myself, is my faith that bold? Am I willing to trust that all will be well?

For example, I would never say that if you have enough faith in Jesus you don’t need health insurance.

But I do have great faith in working as a team across party lines for our nation’s healthcare system in a way that brings equity and healing to all. And I do treasure the saying:

Everything will work out in the end.

If it doesn’t work out, then it is not the end.

And I am surprised how the healing stories of Jesus always make me think.

“What surprises you?” is a vivifying question.

Another surprise story is not in the Bible, but like many stories, it points to the gospel message:

Some frogs were hopping in the forest, and suddenly two of the frogs fell into a deep hole. They jumped and jumped trying to get out of this almost impossible situation.

The other frogs looked into the hole and shouted: “You should have been more careful, give up, you are already as good as dead. Stop jumping so much, your struggle makes us uncomfortable.”

Exhausted and dispirited one frog lay down and died, but the other frog put forth a super-frog effort and by a miracle, jumped out of the hole.

The observer frogs were shocked: “Why did you continue jumping when we told you it was impossible and why did you continue jumping when you knew it made us uncomfortable?”

Reading their lips now that he was close, the frog explained them that he was deaf. When he saw their gestures, he thought they were cheering him on.

The surprise ending is beautiful: It is astonishing that encouragement, companionship, just being there for each other has so much power. How can that be?

In the end, it is not about the words.

It is about the power of what we call the Divine presence.

We are surprised about the simple power of encouragement.

Jesus was surprised that the Centurion really got what Jesus was teaching about the true power of God. I think Jesus spent his life giving a message that people couldn’t take in.  And when they did, He was deeply touched.

Let’s examine the second question: What touched you today or recently?

What was so beautiful or so powerful, that you were humbled by it, opened, connected, heart-filled?

I am always touched by the story of Moses at 120 years old, in the wilderness giving his final lecture to the people of Israel who would have to enter the Promised Land without him.

FINAL lectures or sermons are so touching when people sum up years and decades of wisdom and give it to us as a parting gift.

Deuteronomy 30: 11. The commandment (commandment to love and obey God), I lay on you this day is not too difficult for you, it is not too remote.  It is not in heaven, that you should say:

Who will go up to heaven for us to fetch it and tell it to us, so that we can keep it?

No – it is a thing very near to you — on your lips and in your own heart so that YOU can do it.

The story of Moses’ last lecture touches that deeply vulnerable place in us where we feel like we can’t go on, we can’t recover from loss, can’t turn our country, our world, our planet around.

Moses says to the gathered people: God has given you everything you need to keep moving forward towards the promise. That is God’s covenant with us. But remember, Moses said that to the gathered tribes, not just one person.

The story is touching because it touches a place in each of us that is afraid; and says to the fear: As a community, you have everything you need to create a Promised Land.

A second touching story is from the Islamic faith tradition. It has been a really horrific year for the Muslim community in our country and parts of our world.  So I want to honor this tradition,  this faith, by telling one of their ancient stories that always warms my heart.

Shuaib received a magnificent horse from his brother as a present.  The next day Shuaib came out of his house, and saw a street urchin walking around the powerful beautiful animal, admiring it.

“Is this your horse sir?” the ragged child asked.

Shuaib nodded and said “Yes, my brother gave it to me.”

The boy was astounded. “You mean your brother gave it to you, and it didn’t cost you nothing?  Boy, I wish….” He hesitated.

Shuaib knew what he was going to wish for.  The street boy was going to wish he had a brother like that. But instead the boy said:

“I wish I could be a brother like that.”

We are touched by acts of selflessness. We are all longing to be lifted out of ourselves. Out of our egos that want more and more, the ego constantly compares ourselves to everything and everyone, and labels things as good or bad, less than, more than. It is exhausting to live racing around in a pool of self-absorption or self-loathing, which is simply the other side of the coin.

We long to be surprised, touched and inspired to higher ideals, authentic relationships, deeper healing.

What Surprised you? What Touched you?

 

 Dr. Remen’s third heart-opening question for us is: What inspired you?

The word inspiration is from the same root word spirit, breath, life.  Inspiration implies that our spirit is alive, breathing, awake.

Inspiration opens us up to the divine life force that is always and everywhere around and within us.

A family took care of a 96-year-old Mom who was dying of weariness and Alzheimer’s, and inability to swallow.  It was a long arduous journey. It was smelly and not fun. They really wanted to be there for her and with her, but they were wearing down.

One day the son came across an article about how Japanese tea bowls are repaired.  The Kintsugi method is the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with powered gold.

Basically, you fill the cracks and chips with gold.  The bowl is not thrown away, but becomes more beautiful because of the events in its life that occurred as it served us.  The cracks are honored rather than disparaged.

The image of the old bowl, its cracks and fragility honored with gold, inspired him, and reawakened his desire to serve and love in the face of the great challenge of taking care of a dying, non-communicative elder.

What surprised you, what touched you, what Inspired you?

These questions take us to the place of the heart, the place where God is able to speak to us, energize our spirits and motivate us to move forward and create a world that benefits all of God’s creation.

I close with St. Paul’s hopeful words to the Ephesians and to us:

God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.” Ephesians 3:20-21

Surprising, Touching, Inspiring.

That is the good news of the Gospel. And how will you bring those three golden elements to honor and encourage a chipped and cracked world that needs them so much?

The Rev. Rebecca W. Dolch


The Rev. Rebecca W. Dolch from the United Methodist Minister Church in Upper New York Conference, Ithaca, New York delivers a guest sermon entitled, “Surprised, Touched, Inspired” as part of the 2017 Marsh Chapel Summer Preaching Series.

Talking About Death

Sunday, August 13th, 2017

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Acts 9:36-43

John 14:1-3

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Testimonials always get my attention.  I love to hear people tell stories about what works for them. Diet testimonials are the best: “How I lost 96 pounds and transformed my life.”

Children give testimonials all the time. A three-year-old said:

“I was really, really scared, and then I put my special blue blanket over my head and now I’m not scared anymore.”

The Tabitha story is a testimonial of the early church telling how Peter resurrected Tabitha from the dead, this devoted woman who helped the poor.

I’m convinced that we can all benefit by becoming more comfortable hearing and telling stories about death. Every single one of us is going to die, and if we live a very long time, we’ll have to deal with the death of most of our friends and family.

In addition to death, we have hundreds of other kinds of losses. Like people moving away, the world falling apart, families falling apart, health and health care falling apart, society and the climate acting crazy and out of control, and everything changing all the time. All losses prepare us for the next loss and the biggest ones, especially if we give testimonials, stories from our own experience about what makes loss bearable, and how we have grown and learned from loss.

Today, I will continue to talk about Tabitha, and I want to share 8 testimonials from Mom’s passing.

 

TESTIMONIAL #1: Death is Normal

Note: our family is far, far from ideal, but Mom and Dad were superstars about talking about death.

Death was kind of like a distant relative we would finally get to meet and when we did, it would be very wonderful.  The Best. Safe, Fun, beautiful.  Quite soon everybody we knew and loved would join us.

As children, we went to the calling hours of our parent’s friends and relatives from the time that we could behave.  I remember mother and Grammy looking at my Great Aunt Lilly in the casket and straightening her dress, and talking about her.

They answered my 7-year-old questions: “Can she hear us?” No, not like we hear people.

“Can I touch her?”  Yes, but her body will be very cold, and her spirit isn’t in it any more—it is with Jesus. Her spirit can visit us in our hearts, when we think about her, but it doesn’t live here any more. It is not scary. Just different. God has it figured out; we don’t have to worry about it.

 

TESTIMONIAL #2: The Bible Speaks

Picture this: I was 12, sitting at my grandmother’s funeral. The preacher got up and read from John 14.

Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.

Believe in God, Believe also in me.  In my father’s house are many rooms; If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.

At that moment the Word was so profoundly real that I knew it was true in a mysterious kind of way, and I also knew from that day forward that the Bible could speak to you like a close friend, and tell you things you needed to know. When people read stories about what Jesus said, Jesus was talking directly to you.

 

TESTIMONIAL #3: Cremation

I remember the struggle that Mother had years ago, deciding to be cremated instead of buried, because she loved the casket traditions she grew up with.

Daddy reminded her that at one of the churches he served the cemetery had to be dug up and moved. When they excavated, they saw that at the bottom of each grave was a simple layer of earth that had once been a body a hundred+ years before.  Mama said in her southern voice:

“Well, I guess I might as well be cremated and get it over with.”

 

TESTIMONIAL #4: Humor and Sorrow

Mom and Dad were OK about death, knew it would come, and Dad made jokes about it all the time.  When we was really sick, he’d say: ”I made honorable mention in the obituaries this morning.”  When he began to lose mobility he said: “keep moving and they won’t throw dirt on you.”

They made funeral arrangements early on, talked about it, and dealt with death a lot.  They had such a positive feeling about death, but they weren’t naïve. Dad lost two siblings in childhood, Mom lost her mom and dad and six brother and a sister, one of them dying by suicide. They lost their oldest son. Dad always told the story of how a soldier on each side of him died in World War II. They weren’t immunity to tragedy, heartbreak, unfairness, horror.  But still: Death was normal and God is in charge.

 

TESTIMONIAL #5: Saying Goodbye

We were with Mom when they took out the breathing tube they had given her until we could all arrive in North Carolina. Her brain aneurism had made it impossible for her to breath on her own at 85 years old. She lived about 10 minutes and then in one last long exhale, she was gone. He essence vanished and left her sweet old body looking like a beautiful sculpture, not a living being.

Just the night before, I talked with her on the phone.  Her last words were what she always said at the end of a phone call:

Bye bye darlin’ I love you.

I’m telling these stories, because I think it is important to give testimonials about death and dying. Death is normal.

Telling the stories of this precious season called the end stage of earthly life is healing. Sharing our faith and trust in the eternal presence of God is comforting.  And it is important to remember to say something like “bye bye darlin’ I love you,” every time.

 

TESTIMONIAL #6: Memorial Services

As a pastor for 40 years, I have performed hundreds of Memorial services, and I have loved doing them. But going to Mother’s service as a daughter, not the minister was different.

I wasn’t talking about someone else’s death.

I was experiencing my Mama being gone, and her spiritual presence being with me. It wasn’t like the Bible story of Tabitha being raised from the dead when Peter prayed.

But for me it was a small scale subtle experience of resurrection. Mama is gone. And the great mystery is: Mama’s spirit is still here.

We didn’t do anything grandiose at mother’s service. We talked about how great she was with laundry. She never, ever washed socks with dishtowels. She started teaching adult Sunday School at age 80 when she finally got over a fear of public speaking.

Steve, Her former next-door neighbor of 20 years drove 2 hours to the service, came up front, and said:

“Jean knew that my partner and I were gay. She called us “the boys next door.” And she treated us like her boys. She gave us the key to her house in case we ever needed to get in. She was a wonderful neighbor.”

I just want to say that the town where Mom’s memorial service was held a decade ago was not a place where you talk about being gay, certainly not in church. But that is what happened at Mother’s service.

A Memorial service is a chance for God to use us one more time to make an impact on the people in our orbit.

A memorial service is a way of making all of us who are still alive, more aware of the small ordinary things that make a difference:   keeping things and relationships really clean, being neighborly, kindness, making lots of people your family.

So don’t let me hear about any of you saying:

“Oh no, I don’t want anything. No service, nothing at the burial.”  You’d be denying your friends and your family and maybe even some strangers, a chance for the healing of the Holy Spirit. That happens when our hearts are opened by love and grief.

Your memorial service or funeral is not for you.  At your service, the rest of us have a chance to frame the relationship we had with you during life and start to piece together the relationship we have with you when you leave this earthly plane.

It is a time when we start picturing you with the angels–a new picture that needs developing.

 

 TESTIMONY #7: Kindness

 We had the calling hours at Mom and Dad’s house. People showed up with food and flowers and hugs and love and stories. All these people simply sharing kindness in the face of grief.

I started sobbing over the four chocolate meringue pies that showed up, because Mother always made Daddy a chocolate Meringue pie for his birthday. It was a symbol of 65 years of love, and marriage, and seeing it opened my heart, and I connected with the love, and with the loss, and with my Dad.

At the time of death or loss, or grief, people are more willing to be vulnerable, intimate with you if you create some space for that.

In the Bible story we read, that is what the women did for Tabitha. They came to her house to prepare her body, they brought the clothes that she had made for them and showed everyone and talked about her other acts of charity and devotion .

That Bible story in Act 9 give us guidance about how to go through the death of a loved one.  They wept. They helped. They reached out for guidance.

We had calling hours at Mother and Dad’s home. Their neighbor, Mr. A.J. Dexter sat beside me and told stories about growing up as a sharecropper’s son. The sharecroppers were the next to the lowest on the social scale in rural N. C. in the 1940’s.

Sharecroppers were kind of like the women in the Bible that Tabitha served – poor women who didn’t have decent clothes until Tabitha made them and gifted them.

Mr. Dexter shared that his mother made his clothes from feed sacks.  He stuttered so badly that all the kids made fun of him.

I asked Mr. Dexter, how did you get over stuttering?  He answered quietly, with great authenticity, looking me in the eye:

Rebecca, I gave it over to the Lord in prayer.  And the Lord gave me a 10th grade teacher who worked with me every afternoon after school before football practice, until I could talk. It was a miracle, he said, a miracle of prayer and conviction and her kindness.

That is what Peter did in the Bible Story.  He prayed for Tabitha, this woman who has served God by serving the widows who had no resources. The story about Tabitha became a testimonial of how God can do what we think is impossible. Open-hearted testimonials like Mr. Dexter’s and Tabitha’s friends and her healing, open our hearts.

The pay-off of an open heart is the experience of being empowered by kindness, fueled by tears, strengthened by pain, and connected heart to heart with other beings – strangers who tell sweet stories at calling hours, characters in the Bible, and all the people you know. The open heart connects us with the divine mystery that Jesus proclaimed: “Where I am you will be also.”

Here is a summary:

Death is normal, God is in charge, talk about death, use humor, grieve, celebrate life at the time of death, kindness is the greatest gift, and God works in ways that seem impossible. Bear witness to this truth.

 

TESTIMONY #8: Life/Death/Life

My brother died of cancer at age 46. The night he died our whole family was there: his wife and three teenage sons, Mom and Dad, my other brothers and their families, and my own. When he breathed his last, we called in the Chaplain, who was wonderful with children. We talked about important things, and then all piled into one elevator. Just before it closed, one of Kelly’s sons let out the biggest belch ever heard, and everybody started laughing like crazy. Couldn’t stop. It was the type of laugh that released years of tension and sorrow.

A woman was running to catch our elevator, but when she got there and saw these crazy laughing people, she decided to take the next elevator.

We filed into the lobby, laughing, crying, hugging and talking about logistics.  Logistics ground us at a time like this. The elevator opened again, and out came the woman we saw before.  She came over to my Mom and my brother Jim and asked this question: “Has there been a birth?”

They answered at the same time: “Yes, there has been a birth.”

We are born. We walk together. We suffer, laugh, die, and we are given a new birth into what Christian call the resurrection and the life everlasting. God is with us the whole time. Thanks be to God!

And that is the good news of the Gospel.

The Rev. Rebecca W. Dolch


The Rev. Rebecca W. Dolch from the United Methodist Minister Church in Upper New York Conference, Ithaca, New York delivers a guest sermon entitled, “Talking About Death” as part of the 2017 Marsh Chapel Summer Preaching Series. 

Free Food

Sunday, August 6th, 2017

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Isaiah 55:1-11

Psalm 145: 8-9

Matthew 14:13-21

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The disciples think it’s time to be done. It’s late. They are out in the middle of nowhere. It’s getting dark, and they are away from the safety of the city. There are 5000 men with them. And let’s not forget those women. And let’s certainly not forget those children. Arsenic hour is coming if it’s not already there. Jesus has been curing their sick for a while. But none of them show any signs of moving. Time for Jesus to stop being with them. Time for them to go get some food. Time to send them away. It’s just the crowd, after all.

Instead, the disciples hear, “They need not go away. You give them something to eat.” The disciples state the obvious: five loaves and two fish are not going to do it. Then Jesus invites his disciples to bring the food, their food, all the food they have, to him. And then Jesus feeds them all: the crowd, the men, the women, the children. Who knows who they are, who knows whether or not they are serious in their coming to Jesus, there are probably even some Gentiles. And let’s not forget those disciples. The food that was not enough is somehow more than enough for them too. Everyone is fed, full, and there are twelve baskets of food that remain for the encore meals.

This feeding of the 5,000 men, with women and children, comes at a challenging time for Jesus and the disciples. Jesus’ family member John the Baptist has just been beheaded in the puppet king Herod’s prison. This day was meant to be a time for Jesus to go off in a boat to be alone. But the crowds follow him from all around, and wait for him on the shore. They want to hear his message of a loving life with God and neighbor. They want to see the signs Jesus brings of God’s presence among them. Their life is hard under Roman occupation, and Jesus brings them hope. Or at least a change, something new and different, a good show. So Jesus has compassion for them, and cures their sick, and gives them something to eat.

People being fed by God and by God’s prophets in a time of trouble is a theme that runs throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Our lesson this morning is from II Isaiah. He presents God as a market woman. She hawks her free food and drink to anyone who will listen and will come, even Gentiles. She challenges her listeners to recognize true value. If they listen to her, she says, not only will their bodies be nourished, but their souls will live as well. She invites everyone to join in the return to God’s love and the fulfillment of God’s promises.

II Isaiah writes in a challenging time. The Israelites are in exile in Babylon. Like the disciples, they are tired and discouraged. They assume that they cannot nourish themselves or anyone else in a strange land. II Isaiah writes to give them hope, to remind them of God’s provision. He invites them to seek God and to look for the evidence of God’s presence with them. God promises them that they will return home. They will become a light to the nations once again.

We too are in a challenging time. Sometimes it seems as though our life of faith is one demand after another, especially when we find ourselves in trouble, or we are tired, lonely, and hungry. Certainly many of us feel that we are strangers in a very strange land, and we do not know when our land will return to “normal”, or whether normal will even be possible again, or what the new “normal” might be. And while we might want to be compassionate as Jesus was, this is the age of the internet. Now we see those crowds for whom Jesus has compassion not just in the places where we live, but all over the planet. Not all of the crowds – bees, frogs, forests, sea creatures – not all of the crowds are human. Even if we bring our resources to God, it is hard to believe they will be enough, or that they will be in time.

And yet, through the very unlikely decision of Cyrus the Persian, who conquered Babylon some time after II Isaiah and whose motives may not have been compassion, the Israelites are sent home. They become a people once again. They proclaim the provision of their God, so that Jesus grows up to see the evidence of the presence of God with him and with everyone, even in their strange land. And later, the disciples see for themselves the evidence of God’s presence amongst them. They knew themselves changed from often recalcitrant followers of Jesus in the middle of nowhere in the Roman Empire, to Christians.   They shared their experience of God’s compassion and provision, and they changed the world.

And here we are, in our own time and our own strange land. We are surrounded by our own crowds. We deal with our own hunger, loneliness, fatigue, illness, even anger. And yet, every Sunday we hear the stories of God’s compassion, the testimonies to God’s provision. And at least the first Sunday of every month, God feeds us and restores us to God’s own self, to our own selves, and to each other. Thanks to David Ames, our sacristan, and Jim Olsen, a former staff member, and some folks amongst us who wanted things to be beautiful for our Lord’s supper, we have a fine table set before us. Thanks to Brother Larry and his team, the bread is delicious, the gluten-free wafers are tasty, and the wine and grape juice are sweet. We are well nourished in our bodies. And, God offers us different kinds of nourishment as well. While the elements of grape and grain nourish our bodies, our prayers and proclamations of our Communion nourish our souls also. There is a lot going on here. Take a look at the bulletin with me now, and if you are in our radio or online congregation, the bulletin is online and you can look at it now or later.

We are now on page five of the bulletin. We have already intentionally invited God into our midst, and we have asked God to help us be prepared by the Holy Spirit so that we may be focused and increased in our love and relationship with God. We have already been invited to the table. We have confessed our sin and been forgiven and restored to right relationship with God. We have passed the peace with one another. We have asked the Spirit to open our hearts and minds to the scriptures read and the word proclaimed, so that we can receive them as good news. We have sung and heard the music of devotion and given glory to God in song. The vibrations and sounds have soothed our bodies and minds.

Now we will offer our resources to God. We will give thanks to God, and hear the acts of God in history. We will remember Jesus’ love for all his friends and followers as he created this meal for them and for us. We will offer ourselves to God’s purposes in union with Jesus’ offering for us. We will proclaim the mystery of faith. We will ask that the Holy Spirit is poured out upon us, here and now, so that in the mystery of this sacrament – this outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace – in this mystery we, we, may somehow become the heart and head and voice and hands and feet of Jesus Christ in the world, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit who is our energy and freedom. And we ask that Spirit to make us one, to unite us with Christ, unite us with each other, to unite us in ministry to the whole world, so that we show the power of God at work in us through our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – through all these signs of compassion – and this until the end of time. Then we pray the prayer that Jesus taught us, and we are fed. Grape and grain, served in nursery schools all over the country. As the Iona Community describes them, the simple things of the world through which God will bless us. Then, if we discover that an area of our life wants attention, we can pray about it and be anointed with oil as another sign of God’s presence with us.

Then we will give thanks again. We will ask to go into the world with the strength of the Holy Spirit, whose images are fire, water, wind, and the freedom of flight, so that we can offer our compassion and companionship to others as Jesus did. Then we will go out in peace, because we know that God loves us, forgives us, nourishes, and empowers us to love, forgive, nourish, and empower others.

All this is free. The food, the love, the forgiveness, the power. It’s for free, and it’s for everyone who accepts the invitation. It doesn’t matter who we are, what we’ve done, or whether we are completely sure about all this. John Wesley, the founder of my own faith tradition of United Methodism, referred to communion as a “converting ordinance”. He welcomed everyone to the Communion table, because so many of the early Methodists testified that they had come to belief through their experience of the presence of God in the communion, and in being fed.

“They need not go away. You give them something to eat.” This morning we all are invited to the free food of God. Let us come to this meal with expectation, with trust, to enjoy God’s presence and each other’s presence, to be fed and nourished, and in the old saying “take this sacrament to our comfort”. And then, when we keep ourselves full with the love and provisions of God, even in the difficult times, we can indeed give others something to eat.

Amen.

The Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell & The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

A Little Beauty

Sunday, July 30th, 2017

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Genesis 29:15-28

Romans 8:26-39

Matthew 13:31-34, 44-52

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Ant

   The beauty of summer, sub specie aeternitatis, and particularly in a climate, like yours, long in darkness and deep in cold, the beauty that is of the four score summers God gives you, at the largest extent of God’s favor, is itself a matter for parabolic teaching, in the spirit of the Gospel for the day.  Let us meditate together today for a few minutes by taking a homiletical walk, down a dusty summer road, watching for a little beauty.   In the mind’s eye, and with the sun upon our backs, let us meander a moment, and see what we can see.  After all, Jesus taught in parables, ‘teaching not one thing without a parable.’

Start small.  There in front of your left moccasin moves a lonely red ant, the lowliest of creatures, yet, like a Connecticut Yankee, bursting with the two revolutionary virtues, industry and frugality.   Benjamin Franklin wrote, admiring such frugality and industry, and dubious of much dogmatic preaching, “none preaches better than the ant, and he says nothing.”  A good reminder.

While we step around the ant, the little insect recalls others:  grasshoppers, flies, locusts.   Simple creatures.   Some of our friends prefer the heat of the west, and its insects, to the rain of the east, and ours.  The locusts, burning dry heat, flat arid landscape, and lack of water, out west, would seem to offer no competition.  Yet, some love the virtue of the good people known there.  Some like the simple rhythm of town life, and enjoy the simple summer gatherings—reunions, little league, band concerts, parades. “The people there—they are folks with good hearts.”  And as Jesus taught his students, “if people have some measure of goodness themselves, think how good their maker must be.

Maybe that is the beauty of summer, to pause and appreciate simple, good people, folks with good hearts.

 

Berry

   We can stop up the path just a bit.   Raspberries, blackberries, all kinds of wild fruit are plentiful now.  Jesus taught us to ask, simply, for bread and a name.  We daily need food and forgiveness.  Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we forgive all who are indebted to us.  What bread does for the body, pardon does for the soul.   One of the gifts of summer is the time and leisure to remember this.   A church should be fullest in the summer, for this reason, this recognition of our ultimate needs.

Our neighbor has baked some of these wild berries into morning muffins.  We stop to savor them, with butter and coffee.   We listen to one another along the path.  So we are nourished, by one another, and made ready for the next steps in the journey.

Maybe this is the beauty of summer, to pause and make space for real worship, for that which can feed our hungers, and set us free for the next adventure.

 

Fence

   Up ahead there is an old fence.  For a river to be a river, it needs riverbanks high enough to contain the flowing water.  For a lake to hold its integrity it needs a shoreline that stands and lasts.  For a field to retain any semblance of usefulness, it needs fences to mark its beginnings and endings.   For an individual to have any identity one needs the limits of positive improvement, as Jesus taught about perseverance, and of protective caution, as Jesus taught about times of trial.  For a life to have meaning and coherence, it needs those riverbanks, shorelines, fences, and limits that give life shape and substance.

We can spend some summer time mending fences.  Especially at a time and across a country so keenly divided, a house divided against itself.  It is hard work, but utterly crucial. Keep your friendships in good repair, and mend the fences where they need it.    Think, heal, write, love.

Some years ago, I came by this same old fence.  I was walking with my dad, as it happened.  We had some coffee and a muffin.  Then we started off together, down the old road, he to walk with a gnarled walking stick, and I to jog after my own eccentric fashion.  But for a mile up to the same fence, to the place where the road parts, we walked together.  We shuffled and talked a little, remembering the name of a former neighbor, spotting a new garden planted, making a plan or two for later on.   We remembered an old friend, a old style doctor, long dead.  He remembered that Dr Thro came to visit him the day his mother died.  “It’s hard when your mother dies,” he said, “it gets you right in the chest!”  I remembered Dr. Thro swimming the length of the lake and, while he did so, barking various orders at the universe and some of this patients along the shoreline, riverbank, fence—along the virtuous limits that make a life.   We came to fork, one taking the high road and one the low, and with that an embrace and a word and a glance and we were alone again.  Now, along that fence, summer by summer, I walk with my dad again, feeling him beside me.

Maybe this is the beauty of summer, to set limits and keep them, to mend our fences and protect them, to honor one another in faith and love.

 

Cloud

   This is a clear day, in our reverie, but even so there are a few dancing clouds, white and bright.    We try to make sense of the summer, and to make space for the summer, and to honor this season, one that brings together meteorological splendor and theological insight.    In our chapel, we put together different summer experiences—a wedding and luncheon one day, a talk on Summer reading another, a brunch to honor parents, dads and all, a singing Vacation Bible School for the Young and Young at Heart, a Holiday Brunch, an annual summer national preacher series, and fellowship each week on the plaza–to allow meteorology and theology to dance well together.

There is a dimension of possibility alive in the summer that is hard to approximate in the rest of the year.  We alter our summer habits, not at all to suggest that devotion is less central now, for in some ways summer ought to be the most spiritual of the seasons, but rather to accommodate our life to the necessary rhythms of life around us.

It is astounding to hear again in the Gospel that the kingdom of heaven is hidden, small, lovely, precious, immaterial, consequential, and secret.  But so Jesus teaches us, parable by parable. Summer is the season and devotion is the focus of all such wonder and possibility.

Maybe this is the beauty of summer, to pause and allow a fuller consideration of all the possibilities around us.   

Breeze

   A summer wind accompanies us as we walk farther down the dirt road.   A fawn—or was it a fox?—darts into the brush.  The smell apples, already ripening, greets us at the turn.  More sun, bigger and higher and hotter, makes us sweat.

I guess every family has a family secret or two, that one subject that dominates every present moment by it the sheer weight of its hidden silence, that one taboo topic that somehow screams through its apparent muteness.   Daddy’s drinking.  Junior’s juvenile record.  Grampa’s prison term.  The so-called elephant in the room.  True of nations, too, and businesses, and projects and even churches.  You find it, finally, by asking gently about what is feared.

The human family has this same kind of family secret.  Something we avoid discussing, if at all possible, something that makes us fearful, something that dominates us through our code of silence.  It is our mortality.  Our coming death is the one thing that most makes us who we are, mortal, mortals, creatures, sheep in Another’s pasture, not perfect because not perfectible, the image of God but not God, “fear in a handful of dust”.  Yet we are so busy with so many other things that this elemental feature of existence we avoid.

In the face of death, we turn heavily upon our faith.  It is the steady and warming wind, the breeze of the Holy Spirit, that keeps us and strengthens us all along the road.  Here is the argument.  If your children ask you for something, do you not provide it?  And you are evil!  (Not to put too fine a point on it!)  Imagine, then, how much more God will provide for the children beloved of the all powerful, holy God.  You are loved, beloved, graced, embraced—a child of the living God.

Maybe this is the beauty of summer, to number our days that we get hearts of wisdom, to measure the mystery about us and give over our imaginations to a consideration of our limits.

Neighbor

   Walking along, you may conjure or contract a traveling bug.  Shall we drive north?  A popular refrain in Montreal runs like this: “Canada could have had the best of three worlds: British government, American industry, and French culture; instead, Canada collected the worst of all three: French bureaucracy, British economics, and American culture!”

But don’t you believe it. As that proverb’s tangled contents and tone of wry self-criticism tell, Canada has a great deal to offer you and me. We can learn from our northern neighbors. This is part testimony and part admonition: Take a look at the Dominion of Canada. In particular, let me suggest three things that we can bring across the border.

First, there is the Anglican Church of Canada. Its influence far exceeds that of its sister Protestant Episcopal church in the United States. Though still statistically small, Canadian Anglicanism in one sense is the ecclesiastical leader of its land. We United Methodists-especially those out of the Methodist Episcopal tradition-need to hear the voice of the Church of England. After all, we are called to honor our father and mother; where would Methodism be without its Anglican mother? In this age when theological judgment is so frightfully difficult, the history and tradition and liturgy of this parent church have much to offer us. To take just one example: We here south of the border make much of religious experience. But there are some things that should not have to be learned from experience. The richness of our Anglican heritage can remind us of this.

Second, there is Dr. Douglas John Hall, professor at McGill University in Montreal, former student of Paul Tillich, and author. His book Lighten Our Darkness sounds like a voice of realistic truth crying in pious wilderness. For example:

The test of theological authenticity is whether we can present Jesus as the crucified. To be concrete: Can one perceive in the Jesus of this theology a man who knows the meaning of meaninglessness, the experience of negation, the anguish of hopelessness? Does he encounter the absurd, and with trembling? Would a man dare to confess to this Jesus his deepest anxieties, his most ultimate questions? Would such a Jesus comprehend the gnawing care of a generation of parents who live every day with the questions: Will my children be able to survive as human beings? …Will there be enough to eat? Will they be permitted to have children? Would he, the God-Man of this theology, be able to weep over the dead bodies of little children in Southeast Asia and Brazil, as he wept over his friend Lazarus? … Would he be able to agonize over the millions of other beings-not quite little-children, fetuses-for whom there was no place; and over the mothers…Could he share our doubt: doubt about God, about man, about life, about every absolute? Could he understand why we cling to expectations that are no longer affirmed or confirmed by experience, why we repress the most essential questions? Would such a Christ understand failure? Could he participate in our failure? Or is he eternally above all that?

      Douglas J. Hall, Lighten Our Darkness: Toward an Indigenous Theology of the Cross

            (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), 211-212.

Third, there is the United Church. It was formed in 1925 as a union among Methodists, some Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and other Protestant groups. Today it is a church of some 2 million members (in a country of only 30 million), built out of a combination of Methodist and Presbyterian policy. It is not a church without problems. But for those of us who are still interested in walking a little further down the road toward ecumenism, the experience of the United Church in both its victories and defeats offers a glimpse of what our future might be like.  Its predecessor denominations, including Methodism, gave up their inheritance for a new future, gave up their name and habits and protections, for the joy of a better future, a church not only with a yesterday, but with a tomorrow.

Canadian tourism commercials entice us to the natural, scenic, and cultural wonders of Canada, our neighbor to the north, le Europe prochain “the world next door.”  On a dusty, dreamy summer walk, I believe, we have at least three other reasons for interest: Anglicanism, Doug Hall, the United Church. Take a look.

Maybe this is the beauty of summer, to nourish our souls in the heart and heat of a looming decade of humiliation, with still nine years to go, and to learn from our smaller, little neighbor due north.  Sometimes it can good to fall in love with the soteriology next door, come summer.

You

   May the Good and Gracious God, in the beauty of holiness, make of all of us attentive people, simple and true in our virtues of the heart, nourishing and nourished in pardon, disciplined by hard even bitter fences of peace, inspired by gracious clouds billowing and high, and supported all the day long by a summer wind, a spirited faith in the face of death, and a bright willingness to continue to journey, travel, learn and grow.  May we find a little summer beauty in the ant, the berry, the fence, the cloud, the breeze, and the neighbor.  The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

Salt and Light

Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

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1 Corinthians 2:1-12

Matthew 5:13-16

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The point of salt is to be salty.  We are the salt of the earth.

The point of light is to shine. We are the light of the world.

The point of life is to love. We are alive.

 

I.[1]

Jane was a traveler, and as happens to travelers from time to time, one day she found herself in a new city—the City of Everywhere.  Perhaps you’ve been there.

Jane had not, but being a city girl at heart, having grown up in the land of the bean and the cod, she was open to the experience.

After all, the City of Everywhere was beautiful; the streets were clean, the architecture was appealing, and the people were so friendly.  There was just one thing, one tiny detail that, as Jane walked down the street, she thought was a little strange.

You see, no one, not a single person that she passed was wearing shoes.

Strange, Jane thought, as she ducked into a coffee shop.

As she was waiting for her iced latte, looking around at all the shoeless people, her curiosity finally got the better of her and she said to the manager, “Excuse me, manager.  I’m new to your city.  What a wonderful place, the streets are so clean, the architecture so appealing, the people so friendly.  I just have one quick question.  Tell me, why doesn’t anyone wear shoes?”

The manager gave her a knowing smile and offered in a thoughtful voice, “Ah, that’s the question, why don’t we?”

“Right.” Said Jane, “That’s what I’m asking, why don’t you wear any shoes? Don’t you all believe in shoes?”

“Believe in shoes?!” said the manager, “Of course, we believe in shoes, that’s the first article of our creed—shoe wearing. Oh, think of the suffering shoes prevent; think of the sores, the splinters, the stubs avoided by those wonders of wonders—shoes.”

Jane, a little freaked out, smiled and nodded her head and quietly left the coffee shop. (With her iced latte of course.) As she walked down the street, she was in such a state of consternation that she almost missed the beautiful stone building in front of her.

It had a spire that reached to the sky and colorful glass windows with pictures in them. As she was staring at it, an old man said to her, “Beautiful isn’t it?”  “Yes,” said Jane, “What is it?”

“This?” said the man pointing to the beautiful building, “Ah, this is our pride and joy. This is our shoe manufacturing establishment.”

Surprised, Jane responded, “You mean you make shoes there?”

“No, no, no,” laughed the man, “don’t be silly. No, this is where we talk about making shoes.  We have a staff of people we pay to speak to us each week about shoe wearing.  We broadcast the message live on the radio for thousands to hear and there are moments when the speakers are so persuasive about shoe-wearing that people weep and commit to wearing shoes in the week ahead.”

Sneaking a peak at his feet, Jane asked the man, “You go here?”

“Every week!” said the man, “and even when I miss I tune in on the radio or listen to the podcast or read the blogpost later in the week.”

“Well, why don’t you wear shoes, then?”  said Jane.

The man, looking her in the eye, nodded with a knowing smile, “Ahhh, that’s the question, why don’t I?”

Just then, over the man’s shoulder, Jane noticed a small cobbler’s shop across the street.  She excused herself to the older man and crossed the street into the shop. Though the sign said “open,” there was not a single customer there. Interrupting the cobbler as he was putting the finishing touches on a beautiful pair of shoes.  Jane asked the cobbler, “Why is your shop empty?”

The cobbler responded, “As you can see, I have plenty of shoes, but people around here just want to talk about shoes. No one actually wears them.”

Then Jane had an idea. Surprising the cobbler, Jane bought as many pairs as she could carry and ran across the street to the man she had just left and said to him, “Sir, good news, I have shoes for you.  They are different shapes and sizes, but surely there is a pair that fits you?  Isn’t there?”

The man, looked down at the shoes and then up at Jane, then back down at the shoes and back up at Jane and his faced turned a little crimson, “Thank you miss, that’s very kind, but you see, it’s just not done.”

Said an exasperated Jane, “Why don’t you wear shoes?”

Said the man, “That’s the question, Why don’t we?”

And as Jane traveled back from The City of Everywhere to here, that question resonated in her mind, “Why don’t we, why don’t we, why don’t we?”

 

II.

Jesus was standing on a hill giving the sermon of his life before he gave his life as the sermon.

He began poetically, perhaps you’ve heard it, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek,” and so on and so forth.

And then, according to Matthew, he got to the meat of the sermon…or at least the seasoning.

Looking at the disciples, he said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

Now if we’re honest, that’s sort of a weird thing to say, but setting the strangeness aside for a moment, we should recognize what he was doing.

He was pausing in the middle of the sermon at the beginning of his ministry, to remind the people gathered around him of who they were, of why they were important.

“You are the salt of the earth.”

To be clear, he was not speaking literally, he was speaking theologically.

He was saying to the disciples and in turn to us that we are people of worth.  By virtue of our very being we have worth.

Not because of the things we do, but because of who we are.

And sometimes, as we know, we could use the reminder.

After all, we live in a world that from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed tries to convince us that we are not enough. That who we are is not enough. That our worth comes from how we look or who we know or who knows us.

But friends, it’s not true.

We are more than our tweets, more than our Facebook or Instagram likes. We are more than the way the world perceives us, more than our jobs, our grades, our bodies.

We are the salt of the earth.  In other words, we matter not because of the things we do, but because of who we are.

And for those who may have forgotten between last week and this one, let me say it again, you are as I am a child of God.

But accepting that, friends, is only the first step.  We also have to live like it matters.

Jesus continues, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste (its saltiness) how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

In other words, friends, the point, the entire point of salt is to be salty.

We know from our own experience that when we lose our proverbial saltiness, when we forget who we are in the eyes of God, when we try and find our worth in those fleeting things of life, money, sex, accomplishment, it can feel like the world is walking all over us.

The good news is that even then, we have worth.

You see, not only was salt an important preservative of the ancient world and a form of currency, (hence something not being worth its salt), it was also frequently used as a leveling agent for the most common fuel for outdoor fires of the time: manure.

That’s right: manure.  Salt helped manure patties to burn longer, hotter, and more evenly, and then, when they were done, the solid charred remains were used on roads to help absorb mud.

In other words, they were literally trampled upon…and still had worth.

And while that doesn’t sound particularly pleasant, think for a moment about what it would mean for us to be leveling agents for the world.  What would it mean if we took seriously the call not only to preserve the message that Jesus was sharing—to not only talk about loving—but to be the agents who helped spread that message evenly. To all. To spread it in such a way that long after we are gone, the love we shared made the path a little easier for those who come after us.

Or said another way, friends, what would it mean if we wore the shoes we talked so much about?

Let’s be honest, Christians haven’t always done this well…if at all.

When was the last time Christians made the news for their love? Think of the last year alone and all of the fear of refugees, of immigrants, of our Muslim brothers and sisters.  What has been the Christian voice?

The entirety of the Christian faith is predicated on the notion that we are to welcome the stranger in our midst—to love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s not a part of our faith, it is our faith.   And yet, when our voice is needed, we’ve been silent at best, and complicit at worst.

Friends, salt is meant to be salty.  We are the salt of the earth.

But just in case the salt metaphor is not working, Matthew has Jesus switch to a new one…light, though the point is the same.  He says, “A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on a lampstand so that it may give light to all in the house.” In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.
Do you hear?  Let your light shine before others.

The point of light is to shine.

So, in case we’ve missed it, here’s the point—we are not people who get together to just talk about light, we are people who shine it. We are not people who talk about shoes, we wear them.  Or, to drop the metaphors for a moment, we don’t just talk about life, we live it…and the only way to do that is through love.

I give you a new command, love one another.

Sometimes we can get really cynical about this whole faith thing. We look at it and shake our heads and think, this is all a bunch of manure.  And most of the time, we’re right.

The truth is, our faith is only as good as the people willing to live like it matters.

We have spent too long convincing ourselves that our faith is about what happens when we die.  But the opposite is true…it’s about what happens when we live, not at death, but right now.

And the only way to life is through love.

Friends, what is it in your life that is worth dying for?  Isn’t it worth living for as well?
As Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive then go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

And if changing the world seems too hard, let’s start with the part we have some control over—ourselves…our interactions with each another.  If we can make those relationships a little more loving, if we can practice forgiveness and grace and compassion in those, if we can make a little kingdom of heaven here, then there just might be hope for The Cities of Everywhere.

And if there comes a time in our travels through life when we look in the mirror and discover that we don’t love as we should, then we owe it to ourselves to ask the hard question: Why don’t we?  Why don’t we?  Why don’t we?

-The Rev. Dr. Stephen M Cady II


[1] This allegory is based on “The City of Everywhere” by Hugh Price Hughes which I first discovered in the writings of Howard Thurman.

The Rev. Dr. Stephen M. Cady, II, Senior Minister from Asbury First United Methodist Church in Rochester, New York, delivers a guest sermon entitled “Salt and Light” as part of the 2017 Marsh Chapel Summer Preaching Series. 

Among You (Us)

Sunday, July 16th, 2017

Click here to listen to the full service

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Romans 7:15-25a

Luke 17:20-21

Click here to listen to the meditation only

The kingdom of God is among us.

***

Many years ago, there was a man who worked in a pottery factory—a large man, a quiet man… Let’s call him Joe.[1]

Like so many of us, every day, Joe came to work, kept his head down, did his job to the best of his ability and then went home.

Now, as happens in most factories, there was always something extraneous to the process that was left over at the end of the day; nothing much: a piece of glass, a bit of ribbon, a shard of broken pottery—you know, trash—the result of human error along the production line.

Most of those items would be discarded, thrown away, sent to a landfill somewhere never to be seen again, but not all of them.

You see, before he left for the day, much to the bemusement of his coworkers, Joe went around silently sifting through those extraneous pieces, those scraps of the industrial process, the things that everyone else had thrown away. He would search until he found at least a couple of items to add to what most considered a pile of junk now occupying a rather comical portion of his locker.

But the snickers from his coworkers didn’t stop Joe.

No, every day, either staying late or coming in early, Joe found some time to do something with that junk. Every day Joe E Everydaworked with those scraps to make something new, not always large or complex or artful, but new so that he always had something colorful or unique to bring home.

You see, Joe had a son at home whom he knew from his birth would never leave his bed.  His “wee lad,” as he called him, spent each day in his small bed in his small room in a small house.  And large Joe, though he couldn’t always find ways to express it with words, loved his “wee lad” more than anything in this broken world.  And though it meant a little extra time at work, he brought something home every day that he knew, if only for a moment, would make his son’s face light up.

Every day he pulled together scraps that others had discarded in the name of love.

The kingdom of God is among us.

***

Once, according to Luke, some Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God was coming. We don’t have much context for the question in Luke’s Gospel, we’re just told that once—that is, at some point—they asked it.

And if we’re honest, we get it.  After all, it’s a question we’ve asked from time to time as well.  If not always in those words.

Perhaps some of us have done so this week. As we look around at the political mess we find ourselves in, as we get increasingly terrifying news alerts on our phones, as we witness the saber rattling our leaders, as we learn of the ice caps breaking apart, of meetings with Russian lawyers, of health care without the care, of nobel peace prize winning dissidents dying in prison, it might be only natural to pause and ask ourselves…is this the end? Is the kingdom of God finally upon us?

The Pharisees had similar question.  They were concerned with timing.  Who knows? Maybe they wanted to get invitations out in time for the party.  More likely, they wanted to prepare themselves for the end; for that time when God would come in final victory and their hard work would be rewarded.

Now to be fair, Luke, like Matthew and Mark, also seemed to believe that the Kingdom of God was imminent; as each of those gospel writers said in their own way, they believed that not a generation would pass before the Kingdom would be upon them; hopeful words for those first century Christians to whom they writing.

Those early Christians must have heard these gospels and taken comfort that the kingdom of God was right around the corner, that the uncertainty and alienation and exclusion of their present age would soon pass…that they needed only to bide their time.

But, as we know, Luke, like Matthew and Mark, was wrong.   John, writing at least a generation later, had to deal with their misunderstanding in his gospel, but friends, no matter how we dice it, the kingdom of God didn’t come about within a generation. Nor, as it turns out, in the hundreds of generations since.  The truth is, we’re still waiting for that uncertainty and alienation and exclusion to pass.

In other words, the gospel writers were wrong.

Now, on the one hand, it’s comforting to know that even the gospel writers could be wrong every once in a while…after all, we know the feeling.  On the other, though, it’s a little disconcerting.

Here, they had been waiting for something to happen, longing for something to happen, promised that something would happen, and then, it didn’t.

And now we, nearly 2000 years later, are left to ask, “Why?”  Another question with which we have more than a passing familiarity. Why?

Fortunately, we get by with a little help from our friends.

In our case today, we receive some help from the Gospel of Luke itself; from a quirky little passage that speaks about the Kingdom of God in such a different way than the rest of the gospel that its authenticity to Luke has been questioned.

You see in our passage today, when the Pharisees ask Jesus when the kingdom of God is coming he surprises them by saying, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “look, here it is,” or “there is it!” for, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

Do you hear? Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is among you,” or as might better be translated, “within you.”  The Kingdom of God is among us.

That changes some things, doesn’t it?  At the very least, it shifts our attention from the sky to the mirror.  Not that that makes it easier, it doesn’t, but it does make sense.  It makes sense to us that the Kingdom of God is not something that happens to us, but rather something that we take part in.  It’s not passive, but active.

Friends, the Kingdom of God is not some apocalyptic vision about the end of the world, but rather a hope for a world in which we all finally and fully live as God commands.

And fortunately, we know the gospel writers didn’t get that part wrong.  We have the rest of Scripture and our own experience to affirm it: in the end, we know how we are called to live.  We know that as a people of faith we are really only called to do two things: to love God and to love our neighbor.  Or said more succinctly we are called to love. Full stop.

“I give you a new command, that you love one another.”

For some of us, that means staying a little late at the factory.

For some of us, it means letting go of a broken relationship, or workplace, or heart.

For some of us, it means changing the way we spend our time or money or life.

The truth is, we don’t love in the abstract, we love in the concrete.  Human to human, person to person, heart to heart.

Friends, the kingdom of God is among us and is revealed one relationship at a time.

The good news is that we don’t have to figure it out on our own.  That’s why we’re here, that’s why we’ve tuned in this morning, isn’t it?   To get a little help from our friends?

The purpose of the church universal is to help one another find better and fuller ways to love.  And though we’ve made it more complicated and at times missed the point entirely, that’s really the only purpose we have.

Friends, we are called to keep reminding each other that each person we encounter is someone of worth, a child of the same God.

All of us, young and old, black and white, gay and straight, male and female, rich and poor, broken and whole.  All of us are God’s children, which among other things means that we have an awfully big family to care for.

It means we have an awfully strange family to care for.

It means that we collect the scraps that everyone else thinks of as trash.

But we don’t do it alone.  And as we know from hard experience, we can do an awful lot if we know we don’t have to do it alone.

As Howard Thurman said, we have each, by the grace of God, been given a crown to grow into…a crown which we did nothing to earn and, thank God, can do nothing to take away. A crown of grace which means that whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not, the kingdom of God is within us.

Friends, Luke believed that the Kingdom of God was coming soon. He believed that it would not be long before the barriers that we use to divide ourselves, the walls that we build would finally and fully be taken down.  After all, it’s hard to love your neighbor through a wall.

Perhaps he was more optimistic than he should have been, but the good news, friends, is that the Kingdom of God is just as close today as it was when Luke was writing.

The kingdom of God is not a place.  It’s our hope for a world in which we each recognize the crown we have been given and then help others to do the same.

Do you hear? The kingdom of God is among us.

And sometimes it only takes one act of love to change this broken world.

***

Nobody quite knows how Joe’s co-workers found out about his “wee lad,”—no one ever spoke about it.

Nevertheless, one by one, the other pottery workers began to collect scraps of their own.  And soon, a couple times a week, Joe would return to his locker to find a little cup with wheels or a painted piece of scrap, or an engraving in wood, and he understood.

Over the next few months, the culture of the factory began to change.  The workers were said to grow quiet, becoming gentle and kind, swearing less frequently, even if not altogether.  Then, at some point they noticed the increasingly weary look on Joe’s face and knew that the inevitable shadow was drawing nearer.

They began to do a piece for him every day and put it on a sanded plank to dry so that he could come in later or go home earlier.

And so it was that when the funeral bell tolled and that small boy finally left that small house in a small procession, there stood a hundred stalwart workers from the pottery with clean clothes on, having taken the day off for the privilege of walking alongside Joe and the “wee lad” that not one had ever seen in life.

Do you see? They couldn’t take away Joe’s pain—that’s a part of love.  But in the end, they could remind him that he was not alone.

Friends, neither are we.

The kingdom of God is among us…let’s not leave each other waiting.

-The Rev. Dr. Stephen M. Cady II


[1] This is my adaptation of a story found in Howard Thurman’s The Growing Edge.

The Rev. Dr. Stephen M. Cady, II, Senior Minister from Asbury First United Methodist Church in Rochester, New York, delivers a guest sermon entitled “Among You (Us)” as part of the 2017 Marsh Chapel Summer Preaching Series.