Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Redemptive Discontent

Sunday, June 30th, 2019

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Luke 4:14-21

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A text copy of this sermon is not available.

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

Concerning Moral Leadership

Sunday, June 23rd, 2019

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Luke 8:26-39

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

The God of Second Chances

Sunday, June 16th, 2019

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1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

2 Corinthians 5:6-17

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The God of Second Chances

The Bible is about failure and defeat.

Its stories, letters and teachings record ways people have lived with defeat.  This makes the Bible difficult for us to understand. For we as a people have run and swatted and laughed our way past learning the language of failure.  We don’t admit to it. We won’t accept it. We do not countenance it. So sermons, this one and others, which are fumbling footnotes to the Scripture, may hit us from the side if they hit us at all.

Paul is thinking, it may be, when he mentions “outward appearance” and “the heart”, of Samuel who learned that mortals look upon the outward appearance, but God looks upon the heart.

You remember Samuel’s story in 1 Samuel 15:34ff.  Samuel didn’t want to be a prophet, but he got saddled with the job anyway. He didn’t want anything to do with kings, but he had to pick one.

The people wanted a King, just like we at our worst always long for some imperial leader, some imperious presence on which or on whom we may cast our concerns.  Then we don’t have to live with our own freedom, our own birthright from YHWH I AM THAT I AM, the Sinai God of freedom.

Samuel revered the God of freedom and the Godly freedom in each person. In fact, he revered the people’s freedom more than they themselves did.  So much so that he helped them choose, even when he knew they chose in error. You want a king? You shall have a king and much trouble.

Saul, by name.

Saul, trouble, came and went.  Leadership is everything. But leadership is not dictatorship.  Authority is not domination. Integrity is not willfulness.

Leadership, authority, integrity—they become real when they revere the God of freedom and the freedom of each person.  Real leadership increases personal freedom for all.

So, Samuel, who knew about freedom and leadership, and who could have shouted “I told you so” to the children of Israel, instead went to Ramah, that place you remember from Christmas, of wailing and loud lamentation, and he wailed and lamented:

Why, O God, have you made my people a group focused on difference and not the common good?  Why should there be a few rich and many poor? Why should our distinguishing characteristics be so undistinguished?  Are we forever to love appearance above reality, image above heart? O my God, are we never to see your peace upon the earth, your gracious splendor among our people, your kingdom of love?

So, we may imagine, in a hot dusty cave near Qumran, Samuel wept.  And wept. And wept. He cried in his beer. He cried in his soup. You get the picture.

Until, at last, he stopped.  And as so often happens, once he stopped his weeping, his self-concern, a marvelous thing happened. God gave a second chance.  He said, “Samuel you old codger—get up and head over to Bethlehem and see Jesse. I’m going to give you another chance.” Samuel went to the house of Jesse, in Bethlehem.  

We worship a God of second chances, of new starts, of make-up exams, of the Letter to the Hebrews and pardon after baptism, of I forgive you, of surprise opportunities.  In a way, in Christ, God has simply become Another Chance.

Early on Sunday morning, we walk up and down these aisles when the sanctuary is empty.  We wonder about the congregation and the community and listeners.

We worry about a nation of have and have nots.  We are anxious about a race torn people. We think of people. Some giving birth and anxious.  Some breaking up and anxious. Some struggling to stay together, and anxious. Some aging and anxious. Some ill and anxious.  Like Samuel, we have our hurts.

Up Samuel goes to see what God will do.  God tells him that there will be a new King, of God’s own choosing, out of the family of Jesse, who had seven sons.  

Samuel sees the first son, and thinks—yes, this must be the one, right name, right place, right pedigree, right education.  But, again, something strange happens. Samuel, given to hearing voices, hears a voice. God says, “Easy big fellow, easy. Don’t look at the appearance.  Forget the outside. Don’t be misled by the image. Look inside.”

All that glitters is not gold.

One can be a saint abroad and a devil at home.

Cleanse the inside of the cup.

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

 

Be careful, when the Lady Macbeths of life connives.  Banquo was right:

‘Tis Strange

And often times to win us to our HARM

The instruments of darkness tell us TRUTHS

Win us with HONEST TRIFLES

To betray us in DEEPEST CONSEQUENCES

 

We see the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

Meanwhile, back in Bethlehem, Samuel still has the seven sons on interview:

Job title:  King of Israel

Profile:   Perfect leader

Responsibilities:  Bring salvation, justice, and peace.

Salary and benefits:  commensurate with experience.

 

But he remembers: look on the heart.  ELIAB. No. ABINADAB. No. SHAMMAH. No.  And so on. Seven no’s. And he is limbo, he is in between.

It is tough to live in between.  Like many who are here today can testify.  Samuel would have loved to have settled things early.  But he remembered the God of Another Chance, and trusted and waited, and hoped.  Anybody can make a quick decision. Sometimes it takes more real courage to be indecisive.  Anybody can decide. It takes guts to wait. Anybody can judge by appearance. But God looks on the heart.

Paul and the earliest Christians knew this perhaps better than anything else. They knew about being in between. Maybe that’s one reason why, providentially, their letters and writings have become our Bible.  We are always a bit in between, and we need the confidence, daily, of Another Chance. The earliest Christians, Paul’s city Christians, were very much in between. They were often what the scholars call status-inconsistent, like Paul himself.   A Jew, yet a Roman citizen.  Educated, yet a tent-maker. So they were too: Women, yet rich.  Artisans, yet slaves. They knew about being in-between.

And so the Apostle says:

 

In between the Body and the Lord

In between Sight and Faith

In between Home and Away

In between Judgment and Love

In between Crazy and Sane

In between One and All

In between Self and Others

In between Death and Resurrection

In between Old and New

In between Appearance and Heart

 

When you’re in between you know the joy of Another Chance.  God sees the heart, and sees past appearances.

Well, dear old Samuel, is about ready to throw in the towel.  He has been through all the sons of Jesse, and has not found the new king.  He has found a lot of old king once removed, but nothing new. He is packing up his ephod and girding his loins and otherwise getting ready to shove off, when, again, something strange happens.

We worship the God of Second Chances.

If nothing else this morning, hear this Gospel.  

Today is another chance for your family.

This week is another chance for you work.

This summer is another chance for our church.

This year is another chance for our city.

This decade is another chance for:  our climate, our country, our denomination, our souls.

Where there is life, there is hope.  And where there is hope, there is life.

God in Christ is Another Chance.

Realism and Idealism are not absolute alternatives.  Often either you have both, or you have neither: witness Isaiah 60, John 3, 2 Corinthians 5, and the Sermon on the Mount.  Things aren’t always as they seem.

SO LET US BE OPEN THIS SUMMER!

Read again Keith Miller’s, NEW WINE.

Visit Mount Washington or Bar Harbor in July.

Take a sandwich to the seashore.

We worship the God Of Second Chances.

Plant a flower.

Hug somebody.

Write a note.

Make a bequest.

I Believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.

And in Another Chance, God’s only Son Our Lord.

ANOTHER CHANCE!

To stand in God’s presence

To learn to help others

To have a meaningful life.

Meanwhile, back in Bethlehem…Samuel, turned as he was going, and looked at Jesse and said, “Are these all your sons”?  

Jesse got that sheepish look we all get when the truth starts to come out.  Well, yes and no. I mean these are all the grown ones, the ones who are worth looking at.  “You mean there is a Second Chance?,” said Samuel so excited he dropped his staff and ungirded his loins and lost his ephod.  “Well there’s the little guy, but we left him to tend the sheep.” “Bring him.”

And they brought David up.  He was little, young, ruddy, handsome and beautiful, but mostly he had the right heart.  A heart of songs and courage. A heart of love and strength. A real person. A real human being.  Another Chance. Like the Tibetan Buddhists hunting for many years in the outback of the universe to find the Dali Lama.  Like the birth of Jesus, we remember this Trinity Sunday, he also of Bethlehem. Like the moment your child came into the world.  Or your grandchild. Like every single outburst and outcropping and intrusion and explosion and invasion of the NEW CREATION—there was David, Another Chance.  And Samuel, old superannuated Samuel, could see what none of the young Turks could see—the heart. And Samuel wept, this time for joy, and said, “THIS IS THE ONE.  Hire him.”

We worship Another Chance God.

Beloved, you are not last chance, anxious people.

You are God’s Second Chance people.

Let’s agree come Sunday.  From now on, then, we aren’t going to look at anybody according to appearance, no matter how bad and no matter how good.  I mean we once knew Christ by appearance, but then God raised him from the dead. So we look, as God looks, on the heart. By God, we will become real people, in a real church, in a real community, in a real nation.  It takes a lot of idealism to become real. Anyone in Christ is new, not old.

Singing to the God of Second Chances, R. Niehbuhr wrote:

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime.  Therefore, we must be saved by hope.

“Nothing which is true or good or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history.  Therefore, we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone.  Therefore, we must be saved by love.”

 

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

Lessons & Carols

Sunday, December 9th, 2018

No sermon was preached today as Marsh Chapel celebrates the annual service of Lessons & Carols. Please enjoy the beautiful service by following the link below:

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The Drinking Gourd

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

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Mark 6:1-13

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There is a dark temptation in the assumption that the common hope of freedom is really in the hands of somebody else, someone other than you and me.  It is falsely reassuring to judge that the real big advances in liberty have been, are, or will be the work of somebody else.

Today, in this week of Independence Day, we want to remember that the history of our nation tells another story.  Our land was populated by people who saw the expanding circle of hope as their own responsibility.  With Reinhold Niebuhr, they defined love as taking responsibility.

For the week past, we have been as a family at home, in the farmlands of the Empire State, due west. On the Fourth of July we sat in a boat, three generations watching, as fireworks adorned the sky, north, south, east and west.  And then, the quiet, and the dark.  And then the firmament, the black sky dotted with bits of white.  And there, the ‘drinking gourd’, the Big Dipper, the constellation whose outer stars point to the North Star.  The way home, the way north, the way out, the way of hope.  Our forebears have left us some travel tips on the journey of hope.  Walk with me for a few minutes, due west.  Here is a Sunday morning summer vacation trip, free of charge, and lasting only twenty minutes, a remembrance of hope, perhaps hopeful for us, just now, in our own time of trial.  I am taking you back home with me this morning.  I want you to ‘meet the folks’.

Once a southern Methodist preacher paid this complement.  “I mean this, about your area.  The south is a different place than it was seventy years ago.  Totally different, and the difference comes from Rochester and Syracuse.  Two things have completed changed the southern jurisdiction:  civil rights and air conditioning!  Civil Rights from Rochester and Air Conditioning from Syracuse!” The story of air conditioning we leave for another day.

Our land has given rise to many women and men who did not leave freedom to somebody else.  Its price of eternal vigilance they provided in very daily, very personal, very local, very immediate ways.  In the same manner by which we might take for granted Niagara Falls, so close and so grand, we take these mighty stories for granted, saving stories of hope and freedom.

Due west is the land of Hiawatha (“who causes rivers to run”).  Such musical names adorn this geography:  Canandaigua, Tioghnioga, Onondaga, Tuscarora, Susquehanna.  The great native leader of the Iroquois showed in the 15thcentury the critical need for union, for space and time in which to live together.  His leadership was focused on common hope, on collegial relations, on counsel together, and so he is harbinger of all the examples of faith and freedom to come up along the Mohawk River and the Erie Canal, as Longfellow rhymed:

All your strength is in your union

All your weakness in discord

Therefore be at peace henceforward

And as brothers live together

This also is the land of Harriet Tubman.  You may want to visit her home in Auburn.  Her neighbor William Seward, Lincoln’s opponent and ally, also from Auburn, bought Alaska, considered at the time a folly, an “ice-box”.  Tubman’s grand niece, Janet Lauerson, was on our church staff for a time in Syracuse, after we both migrated down from the far north country, not far from the burial place of John Brown.  Brown’s body lies moldering under a ski lift near Lake Placid.  He and Gerrit Smith, founder of Peterboro, a village for freed slaves, a short 15 minutes north of our July 4 fireworks, were not ‘compatibalists’ regarding slavery.  As Lincoln would later say, they felt those who most affirmed slavery should start by trying it for themselves.  Peterboro, a small village of people of color, in our childhood, stood out, under its civil war statue, one hundred years later, as a beachhead of freedom.  Brown, Smith, Seward and others were the chorus before which Tubman could sing out the life of freedom, following the underground railroad.  Following the Drinking Gourd.Remember her wisdom: “When I found I had crossed that line (on her first escape from slavery, 1845), I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person.  There was such a glory over everything…I started with this idea in my head, ‘There’s two things I’ve got a right to…death or liberty’…’Twant me, ‘twas the Lord. I always told him, “I trust you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me, and he always did.”

You will expect to hear something of Frederick Douglass, on this trek, who is buried in Rochester. His cemetery plot is across the street from Strong Memorial Hospital.  As one patient said one day, looking through the window, “it gives you something to think about”.  Douglass printed a journal, the “North Star” in Rochester, and so developed a voice for a new people in a new era.  80 years or so later, at Syracuse University, it was Professor Roland Wolseley who developed the first national program in Black Journalism, across the mid to late 20thcentury.  Wolseley was formed in the faith under the great preaching of the best Methodist preacher in the 20thcentury, Ernest Freemont Tittle, when Wolseley’s young wife was Tittle’s secretary.  Wolseley was our pastor parish chair, and measured sermons according to their likeness or otherwise to those of Tittle.  Wolseley lived around the corner from the Carrier Dome and therein a moving tribute to Ernie Davis, a kid from Elmira, who, a century after Douglass, and in the lifespan of Wolseley, gave tragic, courageous, and lasting embodiment to the hope of racial justice, harmony and integration.  He also played some football.   The voice of Douglass rings out against the harmonic background of Tittle, Wolseley, Davis and others.  In the North Star, Douglass wrote: “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle…If there is no struggle, there is no progress.  Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening.  They want the ocean without the awful roar of its mighty waters.” Or maybe we should give the honor to his ally Sojourner Truth: “That…man…says women can’t have as many rights as man, cause Christ wasn’t a woman.  Well, where did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman.  Man had nothing to do with it!”

Susan B. Anthony did not leave the project of freedom to others.  I wonder what sort of dinner companion she might have been. Her constant consort with governors and senators across the Empire state made her an early Eleanor Roosevelt.  Think a bit about where we have traveled in hope under the Drinking Gourd.  Pause and slake some thirst by remembering real progress in history.  Our grandmother grew up in Cooperstown and graduated from Smith College four years before she had the right to vote.  Our mother was born only eight years after full suffrage.  Yet today, my wife is a musician and teacher, my sister is a corporate attorney, my other sister a teacher in medical care, and across a life in ministry my top colleagues have been female.  I scratch my head to imagine a world without their voices.  For instance,  Syracuse produced Betty Bone Schiess, one of the first women ordained to ministry in the Protestant Episcopal church.  One of the Philadelphia 11.  We study her in Introduction to Religion.  One rainy day when my daughter Emily was 13 and had the flu, we met Schiess, at the druggist.  The pharmacist called her name.  I clamored over to investigate whether it were she, the famous Schiess.  “Who wants to know?” she replied.  As she left, after good banter, she turned in her slicker and totting an umbrella, and looking at us, pronounced this blessing:  “One day you will be a Methodist bishop”.   At first I thought she was speaking to me. But no.  “Thank you very much”, my daughter replied.  Think of Schiess when you visit the birthplace of suffrage and feminism in Seneca Falls.  Susan B. Anthony’s witness stands out among the witness of so many others:  your grandmother, your mother, your sister, your wife, your daughter, your pastor, Betty Bone Schiess, and so many others. Who can forget her motto: “Failure is impossible” (on her 86thbirthday, 1906).  And her challenge: “Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation.”

Sometimes the freedom train derailed.  Exuberance can produce minor collisions.  When we get so focused on the speedometer that we forget to drive the car safely, then trouble arises.  Woodstock pales by comparison with the communal experiments in this region during the nineteenth century.   The Shaker Community and the Oneida Community perhaps can bracket our recollection. Under Mother Ann Lee, and starting in farm country near New Lebanon, in the Albany area, just across the Massachusetts line, the shaking Quakers firmly addressed the matter of sex.  They forbade it.  Like the desert fathers and Qumran communities of old, they took Paul at his word and meditated fully on 1 Corinthians 7.  Women and men came together only once a week, on Sunday morning, for ecstatic singing and dancing, hence their name.  This made church attendance somewhat more than casual liturgical observance.  However, the practice did not amplify the community itself:  infant baptisms lacked the requisite infant, and so were infrequent. Consequently the Shakers moved to Cleveland where they blended into Sherwood Anderson’s new Ohio, returning to the old ways of hard work, monogamy, and frugality.  In short, they became Methodists.  Hear, again, the Shaker tune:

Tis a gift to be loving

Tis the best gift of all

Like a gentle rain love falls to cover all

When we find ourselves in the place just right

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight

 

When true, simplicity is gain

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed

To turn, turn, will be our delight

‘Till by turning, turning, we come round right

Now, the Oneida’s. You may want to read again Without Sin, the history of their somewhat different experiment.  Just a few miles west of New Lebanon, the Oneida community set out to find heaven on earth, the end of all oppressions, and even the hope that, as John H Noyes read from Revelation, “death itself will be no more”.  Although I went to High School in Oneida I do not recall a full lesson on the matter of stirpiculture, the heart of the Oneida experiment. The Oneidas practiced “complex” marriage, in which every man was married to every woman and vice-versa. Procreation was planned, through a deliberated, committee process. (For those of you for whom this is more information than you require, I apologize) Three hundred in number at their greatest growth, the community produced bear traps and then silver, continuing, in some fashion, until just a few years ago.  Of all the utopian experiments, the Oneida project is one of the most fascinating.  However, after word got out about the doings and practices in Oneida, clergy in Syracuse banded together and ran them out of town, first to Canada and then to the Midwest. Noyes died on the trip, and the community disappeared, except on your dinner table, in wedding gifts, and in quality restaurants.  Let us be charitable and remember their hope, their love of freedom, as Noyes expressed it, even if we cannot affirm his methods: “I am free of sin and in a state of Perfection”

God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.  The faith of Jesus Christ and the freedom of Jesus Christ we celebrate today. Our forebears were disinclined to leave the pursuit of freedom to others.  They seized freedom in their own hands and by their own lives.  They did not wait on others.  They did not pause to seek a secret blessing.  They did not wait until some ethereal sign emerged. They did not expect some magic insight.   And it is their hope of freedom that is our greatest remembrance of them.

They followed today’s dominical teaching of Mark 6. (Notice, today, that here Jesus fails in preaching but succeeds in pastoral leadership.)  When you journey toward hope, keep your friendships in good repair (6:7), travel light (6: 8), keep faith close which is the confidence that better things can come out of worse, waste no time (6:10), when rejected shake the dust from your feet and move on (6:11).   And keep the main thing the main thing:  Jesus Christ is come to guide us true north, guide us by the Drinking Gourd, guide us on the journey of hope, and we are not there yet. Of course not. It is hope that we seek.  And hope that is seen is not hope.  Who hopes for what he sees?  We hope for what we do not see, and wait for it with patience.  Real love is taking historical responsibility on the journey of hope.

 In earshot of our Lord’s teaching, in remembrance of the freedom and hope of our forebears, there is no avoiding a very personal question:  as a Christian man or woman, what are you going to do to continue to expand the circle of freedom in our time?  Where is your Polaris, your North Star, your Drinking Gourd? Where is your tribal council to create?  Where is your slavery to escape?  Where is your North Star to publish?  Where is your franchise to find?  Where is your libertinism to avoid?  Where is your hope to share?  Are you to celebrate independence by singing and smiling only?  Or will you lift a hand?

From the rear of Marsh Chapel, if the windows could speak, you would hear our 16thPresident, himself a beacon of hope:

(Gettysburg Address, recited)

May it be so:

Follow the drinking gourd,

Follow the drinking gourd,

For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom,

Follow the drinking gourd.

Left foot, peg foot, traveling on,

Follow the drinking gourd.

The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

Hope in Common

Sunday, July 1st, 2018

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2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

Mark 5:25-34

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If religion is to contribute to a global renewal of hope, it will have to transcend its own descent into tribalism and realize its vocation to incarnate truth and justice for all.

To realize that we live in a society in a world desperately in need of hope, we need turn no further than the front page of the newspaper, or better yet, to flip on our local NPR affiliate. There we may learn of children separated from their parents and thrown in cages. We may learn that it is constitutional to blatantly discriminate on the basis of religion as long as we can come up with a second, more legitimate reason for doing so. We may learn that principles applied to legislative confirmation of appointments when the opposing party leads the executive branch need not apply when the party of the legislative majority holds the White House. We may learn that the dignity and integrity of those entrusted with holding each and all of us to our highest ideals in the public forum are derided for doing just that, and their lives and safety threatened, by those they in fact call to account. All of this callousness and hypocrisy and evil has been carried out by our government in our names just this week.

“Surely there has never been a generation in the course of human history with so little ground under its feet as our own… The great masquerade of evil has wrought havoc with all our ethical preconceptions. This appearance of evil in the guise of light, beneficence and historical necessity is utterly bewildering to anyone nurtured in our traditional ethical systems.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: MacMillan, 1959). No, this is not an original commentary on the present situation, though you could be forgiven for assuming it so. It is Dietrich Bonhoeffer commenting on Germany under the Nazi party while in prison for his activities as part of the resistance movement.

Out of the depths have I cried to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice;
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.
If you, Lord, were to mark what is done amiss,
O Lord, who could stand? -Psalm 130: 1-2 (NRSV)

Resistance is what we are called to in our time as well. But if our resistance is going to amount to anything it will need to be inspired by, grounded in, and oriented toward a hope for what we aspire to beyond the present tribulation. I for one, and perhaps you as well, would like to think that religion might play a role in envisioning and enacting such hope. At the same time, I for one, and perhaps you as well, have a deep awareness of just how much religion is bound up in, and too often supportive of, the callousness, hypocrisy, and evil we are supposed to be resisting, not only here at home, but around the world. Indeed, if religion is to contribute to a global renewal of hope, we will have to transcend our own descent into tribalism and realize our vocation to incarnate truth and justice for all.

Religion too often succumbs to tribal idolatries. This includes Christianity, often as not at the vanguard of the fall from grace. Paul Tillich reminds us that idolatry is mistaking the finite for the infinite. Tribal idolatries mistake the finitude of our personal identities with the infinity of God’s grace. In the Christian idiom, the bible is mistaken for God, masculinity is mistaken for Christ-likeness, whiteness is mistaken for purity, the nation state is mistaken for the realm of God, and money is mistaken for salvation. When identities are so cosmologized against the backdrop of divinity, they become potent principles for discriminating in-groups from out-groups. Rich, white, male Americans who believe in the bible are in, and everyone else is out.

Well, now, this is strange. Here we are speaking in the Christian idiom, and yet there seems to be a glaring omission from the supposedly Christian tribal idolatry. Hellooo! Jesus! How odd. Jesus appears to have been written out of Christianity.

Of course Jesus has been written out of tribalistic Christianity. Jesus was fundamentally opposed to tribalism, as were the founding figures of most, if not all, religions. Including Jesus would result in an inevitable iconoclasm. Consider our Gospel reading for today, which concludes with Jesus saying, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” -Mark 5: 34 (NRSV). So much for Masculanity. If you need it spelled out for you, my mother preached a fantastic sermon on that passage a few years ago. Then there’s our passage from the first chapter of Second Samuel. I’m just going to set the 26thverse here and let you meditate on it, merely noting that we’ve just concluded a fantastic Pride month in spite of the Supreme Court letting a baker get away with discriminating against LGBTQ folk. David says, “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” -2 Samuel 1: 26 (NRSV).

Please note: today’s scripture readings were prescribed by the Revised Common Lectionary. I did not select them: they were set for today in 1994, and Dean Hill assigned me to preach today.

Jesus does not play the in-group/out-group game, and neither should the religion founded in his name and on his teaching. Neither should the religions whose founders similarly decried tribalism in its many guises, that is, nearly all of them. This is not to say there has necessarily ever been a pristine expression of religion apart from the temptation toward idolatry. All of the tribalistic framings have been written in since the beginning, including in the sacred texts themselves. Our calling, like the calling of all people of faith down through the ages, is to do better: to be more faithful, to exhibit more integrity, to press onward toward perfection.

This does lead us to a troubling conundrum, though:

If religion is not about controlling women’s bodies, minds, and spirits;

If religion is not about judging the character of people by the color of their skin;

If religion is not about claiming God for ourselves over against our neighbor;

If religion is not about gaining and parading extravagant sums of money;

If religion is not about justifying our worst proclivities by beating others over the head with a book;

Then what is left for religion to be about?

Hope. Religion is about hope. “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you” -1 Peter 3: 15 (NRSV). Yet, even here, at the brink of a turn toward redemption, the temptation to tribalism looms. Religion is about hope, but it is not about your hope, and your hope, and your hope, and my hope, and her hope, and his hope. Hope is not individual. Hope is not even collective. Hope is in common. Hope is for all of us, together. As Howard Thurman taught us, “People, all people, belong to one another.”

In what, then, are we to hope? The good news, the gospel, for us today is that religion is not rocket science. The hope of religion is really so simple and so straightforward that it is little wonder it so often gets overlooked and that we become suspicious that it must be some sort of trick. Hope is simply this: all means all. That’s it: all means all, no ifs, ands, or buts.

All means all. Not, “all if you are male.” All. Women and men and trans and intersex and gender-nonconforming. All.

All means all. Not, “all if you are white.” All. Black and brown and white and every shade in between and beyond. All.

All means all. Not, “all if you are a U.S. citizen.” All. Canadian and Mexican and American and Chinese and Indian and Nigerian and Kenyan and Iranian and Russian and Colombian and Irish and Italian and all the rest. All.

All means all. Not, “all if you are rich.” All. Poor and rich and middle class that “As it is written, ‘the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little’” -2 Corinthians 8: 15. All.

All means all. Not, “all as long as you believe every word that is printed in this book as I understand it.” All. Jews and Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Jains and Sikhs and Bahais and Buddhists and Daoists and Confucians and atheists and agnostics and spiritual but not religious and nones. All.

All means all. God makes all of us and God calls all of us to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly. That includes you, and you, and you, and you, and me, and her, and him. All.

“People, all people, belong to one another, and those who shut themselves away diminish themselves, and those who shut others away from them destroy themselves” (Howard Thurman, paraphrased from The Search for Common Ground). All means all because all is all having been made by the all in all.

Last night, like most nights, before I went to sleep I went into each of my daughters’ bedrooms and watched them sleeping peacefully surrounded by too many stuffed animals to count. This week, however, it is impossible to look at them sleeping soundly and then walk across the hall to my own bed without immediately thinking of the thousands of children ripped from their parents’ arms and made to sleep under foil blankets, wailing themselves to sleep with cries for their mothers. This egregious human rights violation is being carried out in our time, on our watch, by our government, in our names. You see, a corollary of insisting that all means all is that the terror and torment being visited upon these children even as I speak is on all of us, regardless of who we voted for.

On Wednesday we will celebrate Independence Day, the foundational principle of which is liberty and justice for all. As a country we have never fulfilled this principle, always leaving liberty and justice a promissory note for some. Yet, those whose dignity and worth has been violated continue to come in hope of receiving what we have promised. Thus, our failure only compounds their violation. We must do better.

I have two beautiful daughters. Hope too has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage. If you are angered by what is being done in your name, then you must wrap yourself in hope that you may have the courage to resist. A Bonhoeffer moment is fast approaching when we may be called upon to resist in ways we had hoped would never be necessary. We will then have to answer, in real time, the question posed by our Baccalaureate speaker in May, the honorable Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto: what will youdo in a moral crisis?

If this sounds to you like a kind of extremism, good. Like Bonhoeffer, Dr. King gave voice to some of his most profound thinking from prison as he reminds us, “Was not Jesus an extremist in love? – ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice? – ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? – ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist? – ‘Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.’ Was not John Bunyan an extremist? – ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a mockery of my conscience.’ Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? – ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? – ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?” (Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail).

Perhaps the greatest sign of hope this past week was the Democratic primary victory by just such an extremist in the 14thcongressional district of the state of New York, Boston University alumna Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In an article for America magazine she reminds us just how deeply the pursuit of justice is implicated in the life of faith. She says, “By nature, a society that forgives and rehabilitates its people is a society that forgives and transforms itself. That takes a radical kind of love, a secret of which is given in the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.And let us not forget the guiding principle of ‘the least among us’ found in Matthew: that we are compelled to care for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick and, yes—the imprisoned.”

All means all. God makes all of us and God calls all of us to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly. That includes you, and you, and you, and you, and me, and her, and him. All. Amen.

– Brother Lawrence A. Whitney, LC†, University Chaplain for Community Life

Grace and Peace

Sunday, June 24th, 2018

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2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Mark 4:35-41

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Grace opens our hearts. Peace stills our hearts.  May this summer 2018, for you, be a summer of Grace and Peace.

First, Grace

Grace opens our hearts.

A friend recalled Marilynn Robinson: “Theologians talk about prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it.  I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave—that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.  And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful.  It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing.”  (p. 246, Gilead,  paperback, 2006).

Let us make ourselves useful to the cause of grace.  Christ molds us, using our faults, even, He molds us in the cruciform of love.  We are not perfect, for we are not perfectible.  So, Shakespeare:  ‘They say best men are molded out of faults, and, for the most, become much more the better, for being a little bad’.

In her study of religious congregations, the subject of several of her award-winning books, Boston University Professor Nancy Ammerman says she’s witnessed two big changes. One is the diversifying of the American religious landscape, as immigrants have seeded the country with Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and other religions. The second is the growth of the “nones(the religiously unaffiliated). Their mushrooming is a response to dismay with both the growing politicization of religion (especially evangelical Christians linking up with the right), she says, and scandals such as Catholic clergy sex abuse. These developments prompted the rise of self-described spiritual-but-not-religious Americans. But “the bottom line of my research is that they’re probably neither,” she says. (April 25 2018, BU TODAY)

What does it mean, here and now, to be a Christian, to grow in grace and learn the arts, the habits of the spiritual and the religious?

In this week when we have watched as the welfare of 2300 immigrant children has been hanging in the balance, the question has a direct and sudden personal immediacy, even if in retrospect the moment has been amply foreshadowed in the last two years.  We hear the force of the Apostle’s warning, existential warning, not to accept the grace of God in vain.

Yes, you have reason and obligation to be concerned about the persons and personalities driving cultural and political formation, concerned about rhetoric and language and behavior, concerned about voice, and what voice and voices do speak for the land you love, the country you cherish. 

Yes, you have reason and obligation to be concerned about the policies, which emanate from those personalities and persons, those forms of rhetoric and language and behavior.  Government is just what we decide to do together.(D Patrick, 4/8/18) Policies  affecting now these 2300 children, and others that cause 5-year old children in Mississippi to lose their teeth due to lack of medical care, or policies that may ignite and incite the wreckage of warfare, or policies that enrich the few and impoverish the many by forging a hierarchy of zip-codes, or policies that forget the stranger in our midst, or policies that diminish some by means of race or gender or nationality, in particular:  about this you have reason and obligation, as Christian people, to be concerned.  You have no option about the concern, however you finally judge the policies.  You are free to run your marathon, in personal faith, but just make sure you see the social engagement all along the route, from Heartbreak Hill to Kenmore Square, that makes your run possible.  Grace begets a combination of deep personal faith and active social involvement.

Yes, you have full reason and obligation to be concerned about public good, about the forms of culture and civil society across our land, painstakingly built up over 250 years, that are not government and not politics, but are more fundamental and more fragile than both.   You have reason and obligation to be concerned about flagrant falsehoods and the celebration of untruth (contrary to regular assertion, there are by percentage fewer incidents of crime among immigrants, legal or undocumented, than in the rest of the population, for instance) about the denigration of women by callous mistreatment, about the mockery of the one hundred years of devotion to moral development by the Boy Scouts, about the disdain for courts of justice and the rule of law, about discourtesies to transgender people, about accommodation of white supremacists, about the rejection of diplomacy amid long standing global partnerships as a matter of course, about verbal and visual insults of Puerto Ricans, about forms of spurious half-baked nationalism, about the hourly shredding of the inherited role and influence of national leadership, about racist disdain, in scatological expression, for countries of color, about unapologetic, flagrant, unbiblical and public misuses of sexuality, about the dismemberment of public discourse centered on objective truth, about the un-enforcement of fair housing laws, and so on—in short, about all manner of the lowering of standards and forms of civil society.

Grace, the struggle to live by grace and not in vain, grace is the antidote to what is graceless.  Grace opens the heart, as Paul teaches the early Christians in Corinth.  Grace for persons, policies and public good.  Beloved:  You have not accepted the grace of God in vain.  You have accepted the grace of God in faith.  This very past week, in particular, have you accepted grace to lead you on and lead you home.  If grace can change the heart of John Newton, a slaver, who gave us our hymn, Amazing Grace, then grace can continue to open hearts, open minds, and open doors.   Our radio congregation, this week, has led the way. A message from Vermont hails the determination of the United Methodist Church to bring charges against a member, the current US Attorney General, who may have fallen under the graceless shadows of child abuse and racism (as the charge alleges).  (In forty years of ministry, this disciplinary paragraph has been used, in my experience, only once, prior to this week.   Charges are brought against clergy with regularity, but almost never against laity.  Rare, but there.) A message from Boston calls us to faith, to protest, and to compassion, by the grace of God.  A message from regular weekly congregant listeners in Georgetown Texas, calls on the Methodist Church to remember its own disciplinary teaching: The official United Methodist policy is stated clearly in the Book of Discipline: “We oppose immigration policies that separate family members or that include detention of families with children.” (Para. 162.H, emphasis added).   A message from New Haven Connecticut, and the campus of Yale University, admonishes us all to civility, recalling Hannah Arendt, to meet the graceless with grace: After a while, people come to “believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true,” wrote Arendt, the German-born philosopher, in describing how truth lost its way in her native land.  

Grace opens the heart. Here is what the Holy Scripture helps us see, regarding grace.  From Vermont, to Boston, to Texas, to New Haven…you are not alone.   You see and know the ongoing struggles, in grace for grace, by grace to undo the graceless, as did St. Paul in his frank accounting of his own struggles, in admonishment to the Corinthians.  In fact, we too will perhaps develop a catalogue of hurts, which then can be used to say, ‘You see.  I have been for you, into injury.  I am for you, even to hurt.  So now, maybe, I can speak to you’.  You see two years of past humiliation, and probably most of decade into the future, before the shadows fully lift, before the tide fully turns.  You have endurance (UPOMONE) which may be allowed to stand for all the rest in Paul’s catalogue of hurt. You have endurance, in part, because you know that you are not alone.  We have still in our mind, our memory, our heart, and our soul, as a people, a capacity for grace. 

Grace opens the heart to a little worldly wisdom, let us say:  I was once told the whimsical story of an Ethiopian tribe, Dorze by name, who, knowing that the leopard is a Christian animal, believe that like all good Christians in their region the leopard fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays; despite this belief, they are just as anxious to protect their herds and themselves from the leopard’s marauding on these days as on the other five!   Wise as serpents, innocent as doves…

So do one thing.  My grandmother had a sign on her kitchen door that read:  ‘Do one thing.  There. You’ve done one thing.’  Support one campaign, somewhere in the country where it makes a difference:  by acquaintance, by prayer, by encouragement, by giving.  For example.

Grace opens our hearts.

 

Second, Peace

Peace stills our hearts.

You have little trouble to understand why this wonderful passage, Mark 4:35, about the wind, and the sea, and the boat, and fear, and the dominical gift of peace, were so loved and cherished and remembered that Mark recalled and recorded the moment fully 30 years after the earthly ministry of Jesus.  Peace!  Be Still!  While this narrative is embedded in the career of Jesus’ preaching, teaching, and healing, its meaning is a moment of resurrection, of lasting peace, a foretaste of heaven, within the vicissitudes of earth.

The Gospel of Mark is heard, written, read and interpreted, after resurrection.  While the hearer knows the story, a passion narrative with a long introduction, as Wilhelm Wrede aptly said, the passion of the story is resurrection, in the light of which, after which, as a consequence of which, chapters 1-15, including our passage today, appear.  You read Mark 4 in the bright light of Mark 16.  You hear the account of the rocking boat in earshot of the account of the risen Lord.  Why are you afraid?  Have you no faith?  Perfect love casts out fear, does it not?  Which, that is, takes you back to April 1, to Easter.  What do you remember from Easter?  Do you recall Easter at all?  Hug Easter.  Life is meant to be lived in Easter, not Advent, not Lent, not Good Friday.

Remember an angel on the right, clothed in white.  Remember the Crucified, going before, continuously before.  Remember those great Greek Gospel words, you can hear their English cousins, tromos and ekstasis(trauma and ecstasy).  Remember that they were afraid, but that resurrection gave Mary Magdalene the strength to move out of her past, and Peter the strength to admit faithful disappointment. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The chance for.  The possibility of.  The hearing of.   

Now Markis not great literature, but it is Holy, it is Holy Scripture. It is not Plato, not Cicero, not Homer. Nor is the Greek of the gospel a finely tuned instrument.  It is harsh, coarse and common.  The gospel was formed, formedin the life of a community.  Its passages and messages were announced as memories meant to offer hope.  Its account of Jesus, in healing and preaching and teaching, all the way to the cross and beyond, is offered to a very human group of humans who are trying to make their way along His way.  The Gospel is a record of the preaching of the gospel.  To miss this, or to mistake this, is to miss the main point of the Gospel, and to miss the gospel.  It is in preaching that the gospel arrives, enters, feasts, embraces, loves, and leaves. It is in preaching that you hear something that makes life meaningful, makes life loving, makes life real.  It is in preaching that the Gospel of Mark came to be, as a community, over time, heard and reheard, remembered and rehearsed the story of Jesus crucified (his past) and risen (his presence).  We should not expect narrative linearity, historical accuracy, or re-collective precision here.  And in fact, we find none.  Let me put it another way around.  Most of the NT documents are, in one way or another, attempts to remember, accurately, the nature and meaning ofbaptism.  Well, Mark fits that description.  How are we to live with a measure of peace, one of the fruit of the spirit?

Peace stills the heart.  Here is a story about Barbara Bush, of blessed memory. Her pastor at her funeral remembered Barbara Bush’s playful peace.  He sat with her on the shore at Kennebunkport as she washed out her shoes in the rocky surf. A family came up and the mother said, ‘You look a lot like Barbara Bush.’  Barbara smiled and replied, ‘I get that a lot’.  Peace.

Peace stills the heart.  A consolation note, from one woman to another,  carried this line: “I know your grief.  Yet once my own grandmother died, in a way she was closer, more present, to me than in life, because neither of us was any longer twisted up in all those family conflicts.  She became more really herself to me”. 

Peace stills the heart. Years ago, here at BU, in an otherwise somewhat routine luncheon following a service for families of women and men in military service—I somehow think Sr. Olga hosted–a guest, the former national head of all Catholic Chaplains was introduced.  Unsolicited, he offered a few excellent, brief comments. In sum, he said his work in Washington had largely been about finding ways to tell people ‘no’ without hurting them, to tell them ‘no’ without permanently damaging them.  His example:  25 priests all feel called to be stationed in San Diego…but only 5 are needed.  I found the reflection deeply true of life, of ministry, of administrative service, and simply but clearly put, peacefully put, in a human, honest, responsible, mature and caring way.  His little speech carried truth that had been forged in the white heat of life, shaped and molded then by some semblance of reflection and prayer, and stated cleanly and  happily. I think everyone there will remember his words, when all other 22 speakers are forgotten. He spoke from his lived experience. And he spoke with in a spirit of peace.

In peace, then, in conclusion, here are some humble, practical summer suggestions, on the way of peace. To struggle for grace, over the long term, you will need the nourishment of an inner peace.  Find that peace in attentive embrace of what is beautiful and true and good.  Yes, that means regular Sunday worship, wherever you can find the true and good and beautiful, as much as possible in equal measure.  (For the Christian, worship is not optional, any more than is faithfulness in partnership or in disciplined giving). It also means morning prayer.  Follow in the morning, if you like, Martin Luther and recite each morning the decalogue, the creed, and the Lord’s prayer (or add a psalm or two, or add the beatitudes, or add verse of St Paul, say Romans 12: 9).  Or use a book of daily readings.  Take a moment, maybe just a week, to start, to journal, to write down something that strikes your fancy, a quotation, a memory, a conversation, a poem. Share meals when possible:Half of all meals now eaten in the USA are eaten alone.Limit your consumption of news, and vary your sources for news.   The average American spends 170 minutes a day watching television and 170 minutes a day searching the internet.  That may be a little too much immediacy, in an age hungry to death rather for transcendence, don’t you think?  That may be a little too much entertainment, in an age hungry to death for enchantment, don’t you think? Think of Kierkegaard and  the divine incognito. Think of Ricouer and the second naivete.  Think of Wesley and the reservoir of human goodness all around.

Make your song something like this:  My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentations; I hear the clear though far off hymn that hails a new creation; no storm can break my inmost calm, when to that rock I’m clinging; if Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

  Grace opens our hearts. Peace stills our hearts.  May this summer 2018, for you, be a summer of Grace and Peace.

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

I Looked Over Jordan

Sunday, June 17th, 2018

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2 Kings 2:1-12

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The text for this Sunday’s sermon is unavailable. Please enjoy this service’s Community Announcements and Prayers of the People by the wonderful Reverend Doctor Jennifer Quigley and Reverend Soren Hessler.

Community Announcements

Good morning, and welcome to Marsh Chapel at Boston University. On this Father’s Day, we are glad that you are joining us for a moment of pause, rest, and worship, either here in the nave at 735 Commonwealth Avenue, listening via radio or internet waves at 90.9 WBUR or wbur.org, or later via the podcast. As we strive to be a service in the service of the city – Boston – and a heart in the heart of the city, know that you are welcome here – immigrant, refugee, or 8thgeneration New Englander, black, brown, white, gay, straight, bi, trans, something else, or simply not sure. You are welcome here. Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green Party, Independent, you are welcome here. If you are new to Marsh Chapel, we hope you may identify yourself to one of the chapel’s staff after the service so that we can introduce you better to this vibrant and diverse Christian community or add your name and contact info to the red pads at the end of each pew. If listening from afar, check out our website: www.bu.edu/chapel or send us an email at chapel@bu.edu. We are delighted to get you better connected.

While academic year chapel activities remain suspended for the summer, the chapel offices remain open on weekdays and Sunday mornings. We continue to be here for worship at 11am every Sunday and coffee hour following the service. We hope you might join us downstairs following the service today.

Next Sunday, June 24, following the morning worship service, join the Dean and Jan Hill for a Vacation Bible School experience beginning at noon complete with pizza, bible verses, music, and fellowship. For more information, contact chapel@bu.eduor speak with the Dean.

The following Sunday, July 1, the chapel’s annual Independence Day cookout will happen following the morning service. You are welcome to bring a dish to share.

Finally, on a more personal note, I am pleased to share that the Rev. Dr. Jennifer Quigley has accepted a two-year post-doctoral fellowship with the Louisville Institute and will be placed at Drew University Theological School as Assistant Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Studies. Jen and I will be moving to Madison, New Jersey, August 1. I will continue as Associate Director of the Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership at Hebrew College, working primarily remotely from Madison. We are both grateful for a decade of shared ministry with the community at Marsh Chapel, the last nine of which have been as members of the chapel staff.  We are deeply indebted to the Marsh Chapel community, our colleagues on the staff, and especially the Dean and Jan. This community has formed us and transformed us and will continue to shape who we are and how we serve as we shift into new venues for ministry. Thank you for the warm wishes and glad tidings that were extended before the service today. We anticipate continuing to worship at the chapel through the end of July and hope to greet many of you individually before we move.

A complete list of chapel activities and worship opportunities is available on the chapel website www.bu.edu/chapel where there is also the opportunity for online giving to support the mission and ministry of Marsh Chapel. As the choir continues to lead us in worship and prayerful meditation, please remember it is a gift and a discipline to be a giver.

Prayers of the People

As we come to a time in our service where lift our hearts, our minds, and our spirits to God in prayer, I invite you to find a posture that will help you be in a spirit of prayer, by remaining seated, coming to the communion rail to kneel, or standing as the choir leads us in the call to prayer: lead me Lord.

Loving God, we come before you this morning as your children. Our brother Jesus taught that unless we change and become like little children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Loving God, we ask that we may be transformed by your grace to become more childlike so that we might enter the kingdom of heaven.

Transform our hearts this morning. When our cynicism has gotten the best of us, when we are weighed down by the burdens of this world, when we are too numb to feel, give us the hearts of children who weep when others are weeping, but who find ways to laugh infectiously when no one else can crack a smile. Open us to unbridled joy and delight in simple things and the gratitude of one for whom all of creation can still be new.

Transform our minds this morning. Give us a constant hunger for learning, so that we might commit ourselves to studying scripture. Give us the eagerness for the story, to read the next verse, the next chapter, and the next book, so that we might not prooftext to justify whatever position we might already hold, but so that we might be open to the whole story of your persistent grace and your redeeming love. Give us the humility to learn from our mistakes, to acknowledge when we and our sisters and brothers who have gone before have read poorly and have harmed others with our interpretations of scripture. Give us the persistent curiosity to ask why. Give us a childlike sensitivity to inequality and injustice and let us ask why? Give us the energy to ask why over and over again when we see children harmed and families separated.

And transform our spirits this morning. When we feel deadened to the world around us, enliven us with a childlike sense of wonder. Inspire in us awe at the beauty of creation, from the vast blues of the ocean, to the green of tiny blades of grass, to the shimmer of bird’s wings. Give us a childlike tireless energy for life, and the peace to sleep soundly at the end of each day. And give us the childlike ability to be assured in hope and confident even in unseen things; give us faith.

And on this Father’s day, we pray for all those who are fathers, who serve as father-figures, for those who are single parents. We also pray for those for whom this day is difficult, for those who have lost their fathers, for those who have lost children, for those who are estranged from, have been harmed by, or do not know a father. No matter how we relate to one another as human families, we are grateful for the parental love that you unconditionally offer us, God, and that you allow us to call you by many names so that we might have better relationship with you. And we conclude our prayer this morning by calling on you in one of the names that our brother Jesus taught us.

Our Father…

-The Reverend Doctor Robert Allan Hill, The Reverend Soren Hessler, and The Reverend Doctor Jennifer Quigley

A House Divided

Sunday, June 10th, 2018

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Click here to listen to the meditations only

Preface

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

Mark

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

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

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

           

Mark 3: 20

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

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

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

 

A House Divided

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

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

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

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

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

Bobby

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

Heart and Voice

Sunday, June 3rd, 2018

Click here to listen to the full service

1 Samuel 3:1-20

2 Corinthians 4:5-12

Click here to listen to the meditations only

Heart and Voice

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

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

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

 

Heart and Mind

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

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

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

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

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

Heart and Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember the School of Hospitality emphasis on servant leadership.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.