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The Bach Experience

Sunday, April 15th, 2018

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1 John 3: 1-7

Luke 24:36-48

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Personal Faith

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Bach

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Social Involvement

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Ah, would that I had a thousand tongues!

Ah, would that my mouth were

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

Than what was geared to God’s praise!

Then I would proclaim the Highest’s goodness,

For all my life he has done so much for me

That I cannot thank Him in all eternity.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

& Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

 

Easter Antinomy

Sunday, April 1st, 2018

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John 20: 1-18

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Frontispiece

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

    The Lord is Risen.  Hallelujah.

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

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

Absence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Faith when you cannot see ahead.

    Faith as a walk in the dark.

    Faith when you are defeated.

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

    Faith to risk.

    Faith to open a door.

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

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

Presence

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

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

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

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

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

    Are we lovers anymore?

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

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

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

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

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

    Are we lovers anymore?

Coda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Merton and Vocation

Sunday, March 18th, 2018

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John 12:20-33

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

Graham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coda

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

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

Merton and Contemplation

Sunday, March 11th, 2018

John 3:5-8, 14-21

Frontispiece

America is discovering the contemplative life. (TM, SSM, 453).

In the North Country (New York State just south of Montreal) I knew where I could find my people, mostly men, some women, in a mood to talk.  In the month of March, between milking times, you could find a circle gathered in the sugar house. The shadow of the roof made all seeing dim.  The steam from the boiling tank made of the hut a sauna, a steam bath, a welcome warming in the frigid March air. There is something so purely, and pleasantly sweet about the scent of the boiling sap:  have a donut, dip the donut, drink the syrup. Fathers and sons, aunts and nieces, talking. This is the month for north country, maple syrup…contemplation.

One of our dearest north country friends bore five children in a border farm house and raised them there, including the month or so of ‘sugaring’ each year.  The children danced in the steam and sweet air of forty gallons of sap becoming a gallon of pure Vermont maple syrup, brewed in New York State, but canned and bottled due east, to gain the Vermont mark-up.  She had been raised on an Indian Reservation in Washington State, was graduated from Bellingham College, and then scooped up by Senator Scoop Jackson to work in his Washington DC office, from 1968 to 1975 or so.  How she met her dairy farmer husband and moved to the banks of the frozen river St. Lawrence was never clear. One winter evening, with a light snow (6 inches) and some cold (10 below) she hosted our family at a lavish, gourmet dinner.  Her farm house, astride the barn, and 3 miles south of the Canadian border, had bare studs for the walls and an ancient linoleum flooring, warmed with a great hearth. The table sat their seven and our four and was laden: with pickles, with flowers, with simple china and silver, and with a king’s meal.  Ham lavish and delicious and presented with beauty. The vegetables of all varieties. Dessert, not just a pie, but some elegant tort. In the impoverished cold, she set a magnificent warm meal. It must have taken days to prepare. You can have all the money in the world, with shining golden buildings across the globe emblazoned with your name, and still make life ugly and tawdry and small.  Or, with her, having nothing, you can create beauty. She worshipped every Sunday, in season and out, with family or without. In the summer, with good weather, she rode her horse to church. She practiced contemplation of the Merton variety by writing long letters, hand delivered to the minister, after the benediction. In a fortnight of enforced hibernation this January, there emerged some time, digging through old boxes, to find those contemplative letters, to reread and rethink them.  One of them, in part, will conclude not this Sunday’s but next week’s sermon, which is set in some contrast, or at least in contemplative dialogue with today’s. We leave her just now, saddling her horse and heading home after church, August 1982.

Barry

In contemplation, many of you, this Lent, have been reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography, THE SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN.   As a way of honoring your communal contemplation of this, we quote here on of our congregation, David Barry, who writes, “This search for peace continued periodically for Merton, until the day he surrendered to it completely and decided to become a monk at twenty-six. Years earlier, still young and looking through a picture book on the French countryside, he was captivated by the beauty of the ruins of old churches. He felt drawn to the peace and solitude of these old places. He describes, “… my heart was filled by a kind of longing to breathe the air of that lonely valley and listen to its silence” (48).  The physical has awakened the spiritual…

“(One night Merton) had a powerful sensory experience. He felt the presence of his father and believed that his father’s spirit was trying to help him to escape from the directionless life that he had been living. “The sense of his presence was as vivid and as real and as startling as if he had touched my arm or spoken to me” (123).  Merton thought of the visit from his father as a “grace” (124). “I sat outside, in the sun, on a wall and tasted the joy of my own inner peace, and turned over in my mind how my life was going to change, and how I would become better” (125). Basking in the glow of the sun and remembered religious experience, he had found some peace at last.”

Merton’s Contemplation

Step by step, up the seven storey mountain, Merton finds his way.  One foot ahead of the other, or, better, on phrase ahead of the other, he plods along.  Howard Thurman had a sermon, not a famous one, but a good one, title, ‘Fear not the Fallow’.  It is sometimes in the quiet, snow covered, cold, non-descript patches of time as well as space, that something new and decidedly good is preparing to emerge.  But you cannot see it or hear it or sense it or feel it or touch it. Here, again, a leap of faith is needed. Listen to a few of Merton’s contemplative steps, phrases preparing him for the contemplative life, which begin to appear, in his autobiography, about 2/3 of the way through the book:

I was living.  I had an interior life, real, but feeble and precarious.  And I was still nursed and fed with spiritual milk. (303).

After Latin, it seems to me there is no language so fitted for prayer and for talk about God as Spanish (306).

It was as if I had been suddenly illuminated by being blinded by the manifestation of God’s presence (at Mass in Havana, following the performative language in the creed, at the Consecration) (311).

It was the light of faith deepened and reduced to an extreme and sudden obviousness (311).

God often talks to us directly in Scripture (321).

God began to fill my soul with grace in those days, grace that sprung from deep within me. (331).

O America, how I began to love your country! What miles of silences God has made in you for contemplation!  If only people realized what your mountains and forests are really for! (339)

And over all the valley smiled the mild, gentle Easter moon, the full moon I her kindness, loving this silent place (351).

Renewal of Spirit

Contemplation is attention to spirit.

A nominal belief is not much better than no faith at all.  Not a nominal belief in God, but an active awareness of God is born of the Spirit.  The Spirit creates an active awareness, actually at work in our life, influencing your thinking and deciding.  The Holy Spirit, God with us, is at work today, to refresh your heart and to quicken your life and to banish your fear.

Spirit is calling us today to move on from a nominal belief in God to the faith of a new birth, an active awareness, actually at work in our life, influencing our movements and our attitude.  Such a rebirth, the wind of God inspires. ‘Let us not doubt that by the Spirit of God we are re-fashioned and made new (people), though the way he does this is hidden from us’ (Calvin).

The Gospel of John is calling to you.  At every turn this strange, enigmatic Gospel is calling to you.  I mean you. To take up a step up in faith. To move up a step up in faith.  To receive a new birth in faith. Are you telling me you have gotten as far as you can in faith?  Nicodemus thought that until he saw he was wrong. The woman at the well said so, until she, her ownmost self, was revealed.  Those feasting on fish and loaves learned something else. Those in harsh debate with Jesus did as well. The man born blind, given sight, thought maybe all he would have was his illness and the pool of Bethsaida:  not so. And Lazarus, to top it all, was dead, down in the catacomb, four days. And a voice: Lazarus! Come out! The Gospel of John is calling to you. At every turn this strange, enigmatic Gospel is calling to you.  I mean you. To take up a step up in faith. To move up a step up in faith. To receive a new birth in faith. Are you telling me you have gotten as far as you can in faith? Take a step up.

And how so?

First. The new birth, a gift of the Holy Spirit, refreshes our hearts and makes us new people.  It is a pity that this passage, born from above or born anew, has so often been shouted out harshly, as a command.  You must. Yet the verb is passive, ‘be born’. You had little control over or management of your physical birth. You did not choose it, profess it, decide it desire it, plan it or supervise it.  Without your reasonable advice and comment, you were born. One wonders how it could possibly have gone off all right without our advice. Just so, affirms the Jesus of John, you are reborn by the Spirit, without which rebirth you will not see the area of God’s peace and love.  This is not a harsh word, but a gentle one, not a hurricane command but a light Lenten wind, gentle to refresh your heart today.

The leaves on your tree will never dance if they are forever sodden with the cold rain of the mind alone.  The mind rides the horse, but the power of Godly living, the horse herself, the great steed of the new birth, is the heart. ‘An entire change of heart as well as of life is necessary’ (Wesley).  The spirit is moving you from a nominal belief to a sense of transcendence, an active awareness actually at work in your life.

Second. The wind of Christ is gusting and blustering around your house now, quickening you and bringing you truly into the present moment.  Some parts of the past need to be blown away for a new day to dawn, for you. Let bygone hurts be bygone. One has been hurt by love, another by family, another by job, another by church, another by nature, another by accident, another by words, another by deeds.  As my friend wrote, ‘if everyone had a sign on his or her back listing all of their personal sorrows, we would all be kinder to one another’.  We can and should show each other our scars.  Pain shared is therapeutic. But let the dead bury the dead.  Pain is shared in order that it be buried, not given wings, be killed not perpetuated.  The Scripture warns us about the past, unfettered. It is no substitute for the present.  Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt for looking back. Jesus taught, ‘he who puts his hand to the plow and turns back is not fit for the kingdom of God’.   New occasions teach new duties. The Spirit is giving us another birth, shoving us away from nominal belief and toward an active awareness, actually at work in our life, influencing our thoughts and decisions.  The past is no substitute for the present. Nominal belief traps us in the past.

Third. The Spirit gives you rebirth as the Spirit banishes fear, and replaces fear with faith.  A nominal belief, a kind of superstition, only multiplies our fear. In faith, we have an active awareness of God in Christ, which is actually at work, influencing our thought and choice. “He who is born of the flesh fights to defend himself, looks hither and thither, employs his reason to make a living.  But he who is born anew reasons thus: ‘I am in God’s hands, who has preserved me and nourished me before in a wonderful manner: he will also feed and preserve me in the future, and save me from all sorrow and misfortune’.” (Luther).

Coda

A faith that takes you away from the adventure of life is a false faith.  You desire—and if you desire it one day you shall have it—a faith that sets sail on the adventurous sea of life, a faith that does not long lie in harbor or at anchor, a faith that lives freely, a faith that really lives, a faith willing to change, to risk, to move, to grow, to face life and to face death fearless and free.

It is faith you can ride to church on, and ride home on, and ride all week long.  So, saddle up, and ride back next week!

America is discovering the contemplative life. (TM, SSM, 453).

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Merton and Sacrament

Sunday, March 4th, 2018

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John 2

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Merton and Sacrament

John 2

 

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sin, and are in love and charity with your neighbor, and intend to lead a new life following after the commandments of God, draw near in faith, and take this Holy Sacrament to your comfort.

Scripture

 

Martin Luther taught daily devotions, morning by morning, to include recitation of the ten commandments, which we just heard, of the Apostles’ Creed, contours of which round out the service, and of the Lord’s Prayer, to be lifted in a moment.  To which, this morning, we append a mediation on John 2.

Right away, we sense something loose in the Scripture.  We are used to something ‘loose’, because day by day we know from our bones and ears that there is something loose in the universe, as Gardner Taylor used to say.  Yes, we believe in God, Maker of Heaven and Earth.  (That by the way in its creedal asperity is all Luther’s favorite creed says about God the Creator).  But along with the brute reality of all there is and all that is there, to honor both Plato and Aristotle, we know in our bones and ears that all this creation around us shakes, and rattles, and rolls, and has abiding in it something big and loose.  The Decalogue, come Lent, brings us up short.  Creation is one Christian doctrine, or set thereof.  And so is Fall. Creation, and Fall.  The goodness of Creation is shot through with the fallen-ness of Creation:  sin, death, meaninglessness, pride, sloth, falsehood, superstition, idolatry, hypocrisy.  Something loose, in the universe.  With blood soaked floors in public high schools far and public libraries near, we in tears do quietly nod.  We weep as we pray. What a world.  It is God’s world.  That’s creation.  It is a crummy world.  That is fall.  Somehow, by the gift of faith, in the light of Christ, we try to live with both.   Hence, Sacrament.

Part of what was shaking loose in the community of the Gospel of John echoes here in John 2.  There is a really odd way of speaking about the Jews in this Gospel.  ‘The Passover of the Jews was near’… That is a strange way of saying something, like…When the Fourth of July of the Americans was near…When the Christmas of the Christians was near…When the Patriots’ Day of the Bostonians was near…When the Spring Break of the College Students was near…When the Bastille Day of the French was near…The Passover of the Jews…Well, it is not like fifteen different religious traditions in antiquity or in modernity celebrate the feast of Passover.  I know of no Mormon Passover.  Nor of any alive among Southern Baptists.  Hindus, Muslims, and many others have marvelous traditions in festival, but no Passover.  So, even in this early passage, where the term, ‘the Jews’ carries an untypical, non-normal, frightfully odd meaning, the Gospel does not handle the term with ease, or grace, or courtesy.  Yes, John, here may be helping his Gentile readers with reminders about Judaism, its feasts, for instance.  But there is, as the Gospel unwinds, a fuller, and tragic manner of speech, here.  You think of Yankees fans mentioning those who have season tickets at Fenway, or the way we speak of them:  ‘Others’. You think of Robert E. Lee, referring to the inhabitants of Boston and other places due north of him as ‘those people’.  You think of a humorous play from a few years ago, in which one woman says something about men to three other women, one of whom responds, ‘Oh…them’.  There is a lurking animosity here, and behind that a great dark shadow, something loose in the universe.  Bishop Hapgood once said ‘the only factually demonstrable Christian teaching, about which there can be no doubt, is the doctrine of original sin’.   There is something loose in the universe.

And there is more that is loose, this morning.  Now you are keen Bible readers, so you know that normally in a Gospel the cleansing of the temple happens right at the end of the Gospel, just before the cross, and is the spark, the catalyst, or the cause of Jesus’ crucifixion. As in Matthew.  As in Mark.  As in Luke.  Well, here the writer has brought up the temple, with its cattle and sheep and doves, with its money changers and tables overturned, with its sheer public conflict right in the heart of ‘the Passover of the Jews’, has brought the temple right up to the very beginning of the Gospel.  This should teach us something.  A Gospel is a stylized memory, a preaching of the resurrection by way of reminiscence about Jesus, not a history nor a biography nor a deposition on the way to a legal brief on the way to an indictment.  You know this.  Even if you didn’t, you would know it now, because of what was read a moment ago: after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered…and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.  It is the resurrection that carries the Gospel and the Gospels, not the other way around. You could call it a saving reminiscence, embedded in the simplest of elements.  Resurrection precedes Gospel.  And all else.

By the way, along the way, in the reading of the Gospel of John, we pick up some sideways hints of what sort of community produced this sort of Gospel.  And one of the little hints, glimmering in the big dark, is that this Gospel has a bone to pick with some folks it is close to, a bone to pick with, of all people, its close knit extended family, ‘the Jews’.  ‘The Jews’ then said, ‘this temple…’.  Please.  Who else at Passover in Jerusalem in 30ad was around to talk to?  Other than Jews?  Methodists?  Flat Earth Believers?  Methodist Flat Earth Believers?  Everyone in this scene is Jewish, from Jesus on up or on down.  You see.  There is something odd, something sliding around, something loose, something revealingly strange about the way this Gospel, including by the way, right here, in chapter 2, speaks of Jesus, of his family and friends, of the twelve disciples, of John the Baptist, of the earliest Christian church community, of Paul of Tarsus, and many, many others…all Jews.  Something else is going on here, and it is crucial for us, year by year, carefully to hear it.  NOTA BENE: It is likely, highly probable, that the author has in mind not ‘Jews’ in general, but, rather, some other familiar group, closer at hand, down the street, in the synagogue, out of which John and his small early church group of Jesus worshippers, have been exited, due to the, by Jewish standards, dire heresy of ditheism, and with whom they are engaged in something of a family feud.  You know.  Others. Those people.  Them. Those we oppose.  You cannot read merely with a flat nasal honkey reading any of the usages of the phrase, ‘the Jews’, in John.  And our failure, as Christians, as a religious community, our failure in teaching the Scripture rightly over centuries, right up to this morning, our failure to see and perceive and interpret and communicate about what is loose in this Gospel—its depiction of ‘the Jews’—has had monstrous consequences.  While the horrific historic tragedy of Christian antisemitism has more roots than those in this fourth Gospel, it has no deeper roots than these.

Those who wrote John in 90ad, who bowed before the Risen Christ, whose glory and magnificence and exaltation and divinity they had only dimly perceived for some time, and whom they had only painfully come to recognize as ‘My Lord and My God’, were coming out of an experience of odium theologicum, theological and religious sheer hatred, conflict, difference, with—well, with whom do you get angriest?—their family, their kin, their closest friends, their former prayer partners.  Let us pause for some contrition, lament, compunction, confession, this Lent, in the same year that we honored Elie Wiesel from this pulpit and across this University on September 17, 2017.

 

Merton

 

The advantage of our conversation this Lent with Thomas Merton, who died fifty years ago, sails into view here.  His autobiography is titled ‘Seven Storey Mountain’, and his lengthy, vital account therein, with one notable exception, explained in the Introduction,  gives full measure to his own experience of the fallen-ness of Creation.  On one hand, his journey courses through the most beautiful and culturally gracious spaces from his time, and, to some degree still, from ours.  Southern France, the Long Island Sound, London, Cambridge, Oxford, New York, Columbia (the University), Bermuda, and Upstate New York.  You could argue that his relative ignorance of New England is a failure.  But in his study and reading, as well as his travel and culture, he stays with the best.  All of it, finally, fails him, and, it must be emphasized, fails him not for his own failure to embrace, hold fast, honor, respect what is there and what there is.   His parents die young.  His brother dies before he can really know him as an adult.  His young friendships wither and fade.  He departs Oxford without a degree.  His various relationships with women, faintly even coyly recollected, provide no happiness.  His reading, apart from William Blake, disappoints.  His teachers, apart from Mark Van Doren, fall short. His inherited religious backgrounds in Quaker silence and Episcopal liturgy leave him empty and discouraged.  His critique of Protestant Christianity, as practiced, is scathing, but not for that matter unfair.  He mistakenly or ironically or both refers to Riverside Church as Rockefeller Church. But he finally comes home to Sacrament, he finds, finally, a home, in Sacrament.

This happens on a little side street in the Upper West Side of New York City, quite familiar to those of us who attended Union Theological Seminary.  Through a strange course of influences, he finds himself one hot August Sunday in 1938, sitting in a pew at Corpus Christi Catholic Church on 121st street.  From that very sanctuary, I weekly or bi-weekly saw my teacher, Fr. Raymond Brown, emerge, having said the Wednesday mass.  There was a time when most theologians were also ordained, and so pressed into service, when and as that was possible.  He would amble down the slight hill there in Morningside Heights, circa 1978, as we now remember in 2018, in black suit and white collar, and pause to talk, to check the progress of his advisee, to smile, and return to the intricacies of John 2, read a moment ago.

On that August morning, 1938, Merton was overcome by grace, by community, by prayer, by liturgy, by sermon, and by Host, so overcome that he stumbled out into the bright New York sunlight without receiving the sacrament.  He knelt next to a young woman, perhaps a fellow Columbia student, who was clearly and sincerely praying.

It has been forty years since I have stood on the steps of Corpus Christi on 121st street.  It seems a day ago, though.  This is the strange thing about time, about recollection, about the passage of time, about memory, about how close things are that nonetheless are at a great distance.  For Thomas Merton, his emergence from purgatory came in Sacrament.  May this be so, this morning, right here, just now, for you.  Here is the burden and the delight of ministry on, at, or near a University campus.  You just never know who may be coming home, now in Word, or now in Sacrament, in the very quotidian, utterly simple, spare, nothingness, really, of prayer, of worship.  Of Sacrament.  Touch helps, familiarity helps, music helps, some words help, repetition helps, taste helps.  There is a physicality that helps.  We understand God, if or as we do, in a ‘supermental’ way, as Cyril Richardson regularly put it.  In a supermental, sacramental way, we might say, today. In prayer.  Today: in Sacrament.

Like those who wrote John 2, Merton was astounded by the Height of Christ.  They began to see, once they saw.  And he began to see, once he saw. That is, once the resurrection glory, in the cross of Christ, gradually became clear to this Gospel of John group, once they began fully to realize who this Jesus was and is and was for them—both human and divine—then things began to fall into place. That is, once the resurrection glory, in the cross of Christ, gradually became clear to Thomas Merton, once he began fully to realize who this Jesus was and is and was for them—both human and divine—then things began to fall into place. And out of this drastic dislocation, in John, came a new religion (there is really no other way to put it), the Christianity of the Christ, which would then take wing in the second and third and fourth centuries, in direct dialogue with the terms set by John.  And out of this drastic sacramental dislocation, in Merton, came a new spiritual life, the Christianity of the Christ, which would then take wing in the next five decades, in direct dialogue with the terms set by the Sacrament.

 

Reminiscence

 

On Thursday evening this past week, about 6pm, at the cooling end of a bright warm day, I walked slowly across the lawn here next to the Chapel, known lovingly as the BU ‘beach’.  As usual I was lost in some errant thought or three when I stepped forward, and found my foot resting on top of a scittering Frisbee.  Two kind students, far left and far right, called out, one saying ‘you can throw it to us’.  It was not clear—you need friendship to know inflection and implication in speech—whether that meant ‘please feel free to throw it’, or ‘against all appearances you seem like you might actually be able to throw it’, or ‘we are not playing some game where you have to leave the Frisbee where your right foot stepped upon it’.  It did not matter, because I had every intention of throwing it, long left or long right, and that was not premeditated deliberation.  I bent down, picked it up, and threw it, to the right, before any thinking.  It sailed out and up, and there was bemusement that it did so, so well, or even at all.

It took another block of walking before I was melted into emotion and reminiscence, brought out of that simple touch, that old feel, that muscle memory from fifty years and more ago, that gliding motion, so unfamiliar and yet so utterly familiar.   We spent all summer, in 1962, at age 8 throwing a Frisbee.  It is all we had, and all we needed.  You had breakfast, and were expected home, in that small college farm town, when the street lights came on.  You could come back for lunch and dinner if you wanted, but it was assumed someone would feed you.  The iron matriarchy that ran Hamilton NY decreed only one inviolable summer law:  get home, when the street lights come on, or else.  And so, ball and bat.  And so, Frisbee.  And so, decades later, this week, in a throw, the far off rural, agricultural, bucolic small town world, is become, by revelation, not only at hand, but in hand.

In Grace, God holds us by hand, at hand, in hand. Sacrament told Merton who he was.  Reminded him of who he was meant to be. Made sense of his memories! Brought a recollection, in touch and muscle and taste and sight and hearing, of God, incarnate in Jesus Christ.  You could call it a saving reminiscence, embedded in the simplest of elements.

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sin, and are in love and charity with your neighbor, and intend to lead a new life following after the commandments of God, draw near in faith, and take this Holy Sacrament to your comfort.

 

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

 

 

Power, Mutuality, and #MeToo

Sunday, February 25th, 2018

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Genesis 17:1-7

Genesis 17:15-16

Mark 8:31-38

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Would you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Some years ago, I was at a clergy training. For those of you who have attended daylong trainings, you will have some sense of what this felt like: forgettable food, unlimited caffeine to counteract the effects of a too-warm room, and wide swings between sparkling presentations and somniliquy. But one brief moment from that day is seared into memory. The trainer had just finished explaining the practice of having open door or glass-door one-on-one meetings with congregants. We were using a video series from the FaithTrust institute, which offers the gold standard for ethics and boundaries training for faith leaders from a variety of traditions, from rabbis to ministers to Buddhist monks. The trainer decided to go a bit off script, and he shared that a male bishop he worked with would not drive to any district meeting, church visit, or other event alone with a woman. This male bishop would share a car for the ride with a male clergy colleague, but in order to be “above reproach,” he would make sure to take separate cars when driving to a meeting with a female clergy colleague. In this midwestern setting, the circuits were long and the districts far apart; this is the part of the country where travelling 100 miles can take 100 minutes, with flat farmland as far as the eye can see. True heirs of the Wesleyan heritage, the bishop and the cabinet would often put 50,000 miles a year on their cars.

Something felt wrong about the comment, and I felt the sudden urge to ask “why?,” but a number of ways in which I had been socialized held me back. He stood at the front of the room as the teacher, and I sat in the back, a student. Unless I could explain why his statement was problematic, I would be interruptive, and besides, I could sidetrack the conversation and drag out an already long day. He was my elder, and I was surrounded by clergy with decades more life and ministry experience. I was barely of legal drinking age, and the forty and fifty-something second career pastors seemed to not even blink at the comment. I must be too young to get it. As a child, I had been an incredibly curious and loquacious little girl who had learned that asking why too many times was a great way to annoy your parents. I had learned to be more precise in my language, and that adults responded better to a question with more detail and less emotion. This reaction felt too sudden to be rational. And he was a man, married for nearly two decades, and I was a woman, a newlywed, who had recently been given a hotel room with twin beds instead of a queen at annual conference after a snafu where the front desk could not understand why I hadn’t changed my last name. What did I know of what made a marriage over the decades? And what did I know of the world of men and the choices they made to act ethically and keep boundaries?

All these thoughts and more ran through my mind so quickly that it would take months to disentangle them from one another. All of these anxieties were tamped down internally, and I said nothing. The moment passed, as these sorts of moments so often do, in silence.

And later, as I fumed in my room, the “why” of why I had felt the urge to shout “why” finally emerged into the forefront. Why was the bishop only moving through a world of men? At the time of this training, a single district superintendent was a woman, and the cabinet, nearly two dozen conference level officials, had just three women on staff, one of whom was the bishop’s assistant. Why were there so few women on the conference staff? Even if it was not deliberate exclusionary practice, and I didn’t think it was, this bishop would regularly spend hours upon hours one-on-one with his fellow male clergy. Three hours each way to a district meeting leaves a lot of time for talking about ministry, for asking advice, and for networking. Those hours add up, and leaders frequently choose those whom they know, trust, and have spent time with to elevate to positions of authority. This attempt to behave “above reproach” had hurt the career opportunities of countless female clergy. Why couldn’t the bishop just keep a policy of not travelling one-on-one in a car with anyone? To travel in groups or alone? This attempt at ethical leadership was not ethical and not leadership, and it propagated a more homogenous clergy, a more homogenous cabinet, and a more homogenous church.

But weighing my options, I decided not to speak up. I was not even commissioned, let alone ordained, and I did not have the security of an appointment. I did not expect any kind of formal retaliation, but I did not want the headache of the confrontation. The comment itself, and the hundreds of micro-decisions I needed to make about whether or not to respond in the moment, were exhausting. I did not want the additional exhaustion of drawing out the moment. Besides, the moment had passed, and I had not spoken up in the moment. Silence often begets silence.

 

But the gospel, the good news, is a spoken word, a good, true, spoken word. And God speaks to us in a good word of relationship, of covenantal relationship, of the potential for relationship with God and with one another. The God who spoke us into being and sent a Word to live among us gives the freedom and enlivening Spirit to speak to one another. And the time is always right to speak right.

Our text this morning from Genesis 17 is the foundation of the covenant God makes with Abraham and Sarah. “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.” From God’s offer of relationship with us, we learn three important things about how we are to live with God and with one another. First, God offers covenantal relationship to women as well as to men. It is not just that Abraham is our father in faith, but that Sarah is our mother in faith, the mother of the covenant. When we limit the imagination of our leadership in our faith communities and in our other work communities we close off the divine imagination that calls women and men equally.

Second, covenantal relationship is based on mutuality and freedom. The covenant into which God calls Abraham and Sarah is the definition of an unequal power dynamic. After all, God is God and we are not. But God does not abuse that power. God doesn’t force Abram and Sarah to do what God wants. God calls and invites humanity into divine relationship, and we are given the freedom to respond, to live up to the high calling to which we are called, to “walk before God, and be blameless.” God honors the divine image that we bear. God offers to and does hold up God’s end of the covenant. God also offers us divine freedom for humanity to do what God asks of us.

Third, God models how to have relationship with others when there is a power imbalance. Whether it is a doctor-patient relationship, a teacher-student relationship, a pastor-congregant relationship, an employer-employee relationship, or any other of the myriad ways in which we humans have structured ourselves into intrapersonal dynamics where power is not shared equally, we are called to exercise authority with responsibility. Power does not naturally lead to abuse, but power that is abused does. God, in relationship with Abraham and Sarah, does not demand a cult of personality, but instead offers a covenant of mutuality.

Jesus in our Gospel also has something to say to systems of abusive power. The cross, the method of execution used by an abusive, oppressive state, was intended to crush those whom it killed and the hopes of those who watched. The cross was meant to cut off air to resistance, to speech, to breath, and to life. Jesus has something to say about that. To Peter, who attempts to change the subject, who denies the possibility that an abusive system could ever harm his teacher, Jesus says, Get behind me Satan! No one is too smart, too kind, too anything to be above risk when abusive systems of power and abusive persons are elevated to positions of power. To those in authority who abuse their power, who create a system to prop up their own power by crushing others, Jesus, asks, pointedly, For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and lose their soul? And to those who would hope to lead, who might be at risk, in taking power, to abuse it, Jesus warns, “Deny yourself, take up that cross.” Too often, this catchprase has been used abusively, by pastors urging people to stay with their abusers. To them, I say, As one of my colleagues, a brilliant pastor and biblical scholar puts it, “you ain’t reading it right.”

The cross is an attempted abuse of power. To pick up a cross, to push against its strain and weight, and to keep breathing, is an act of resistance, it is a speech-act, and it breathes life even in the midst of death. Following Jesus requires not abusing power, and it also demands that we strain against those human systems we have created which attempt to crush through abusive power. For Jesus also tells us here that the cross is not the end, and that the grave is not victorious. The façade of abusive power will, at some day, even if it is on the great lasting day, crumble and fall.

 

The #MeToo movement, first begun by Tarana Burke in 2007, has brought to the fore the

pervasive problems of sexual abuse and harassment. From hotel cleaning staff to assembly line workers, from judicial clerks to academics, women have been speaking out against the ways in persons have abused their power and the ways in which systems have ignored and enabled that abuse to continue, sometimes for years. And faith communities have not been above the fray. One only has to follow the hashtag #churchtoo to hear stories from women and men who have been harassed and abused within their church communities.

#MeToo is about the basics. It is about naming the problem of power. Sexual harassment and sexual abuse are ultimately about power, not sex. And sometimes it is good for the church to go over the basics.  Religious organizations need to be able to talk about the problem of power, to teach that it is wrong to abuse power, and to develop theologies about power. We need to teach our children these things, but sometimes we need to remind ourselves as well.

The things that we know are wrong, we should still take the time to say are wrong. The things we don’t think need repeating do need repeating. We must remind ourselves, and teach our children, that abuse is wrong. Physical abuse is wrong. Emotional, spiritual, verbal, and psychological abuse is wrong. Intimate relationships must have mutuality as their basis; one should be able to share strength and vulnerability in equal measure with a partner. This is why it is unethical for a person who is in an authority position over another to enter into an intimate relationship with a person who is reliant upon them, whether for medical treatment, classroom learning, spiritual guidance, athletic coaching, or a paycheck.

There is another facet of the #metoo movement, and it relates to the problematic ways in which men have tried to “protect” women. How can a military man, for example, who bemoans a time when “women were considered sacred and looked upon with great honor” praise the integrity of a man who has been accused of physical abuse by three former partners? It seems to boggle the mind, but with a theology of mutuality, of covenantal relationship, we are able to see through the fog of obfuscation and name the ways in which this statement and those actions are two sides to the same coin.

“Women are considered sacred and looked upon with great honor.” This lament for a halcyon bygone era is a description better suited to objects than people. You might describe a precious possession this way, perhaps a family heirloom set on display, a piece of art hanging ona wall, or an artifact donated to a museum. In this logic, women are first and foremost objects to be protected, not colleagues who are presumed to be persons of integrity, whose word should be believed. In a workplace dominated by men, with certain expectations of what roles women play in society and in the workplace, a man’s word is seen as stacking high against the claims, even of multiple women. This, of course, is an extreme example, but behind every #MeToo story of extreme abuse and harassment lie hundreds of smaller moments, of opportunities missed, invitations not extended, and mentoring overlooked, hundreds of off-handed comments at daylong trainings which reveal the problems we have concealed for too long.

The Lenten season is a time for introspection and preparation. It is a good time to take stock, to look squarely at the troubles of the world, and to prepare ourselves for the great mystery of Holy Week that encompasses all of the hurt and hope of creation. Perhaps, this Lent, you can think back to your own relationships, both personal and professional. Is there a place of hurt that you have buried? Perhaps this Lent, think about speaking, to a therapist, to a close friend, to yourself in a journal, or perhaps just to God in prayer. Is there a relationship in which you did not act in mutuality, where you took for granted or even took advantage of the power you had over others? Perhaps this Lent you will take time and space for an examination of conscience, repentance, and change.

In preparation for this sermon, in this Lenten series, I’ve been doing a lot of swimming around in Thomas Merton, who was a truly prolific writer. One only needs to consider the bibliography page on the Thomas Merton society website to get a sense that there are far more stories than seven in the Merton mountain. But when I think about power, mutuality, and the complex ways in which we relate to one another and to God, I found comfort and meaning in Merton’s famous prayer on direction and discernment. Would you be in prayer with me?

 

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,

though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

-The Rev. Jen Quigley

 

A Word in the Wilderness

Sunday, February 18th, 2018

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Mark 1: 9-15

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May the Gracious God, Holy and Just

From whom we come and unto whom our spirits return

The source of Wisdom, fount of Wisdom, well spring of saving Wisdom

Make of us, this Lent, 2018, an addressable community

That we might listen

That we might hear

That we might understand

That we might listen, hear and understand before we analyze or criticize

May God make of us an addressable community

 

May God make of us a benevolent community

That we might polish our proclivity for the second thought, the second try, the second chance

That we might expect to uncover a latent goodness, latent in others and in ourselves and across this great, though troubled, globe

That we might become good in ways that become the Gospel

May God make of us, we pray, a benevolent community

 

May God make of us, we pray, a soulful community

Alive to spirit, alive to love, alive to grace

And take away from our souls all strain and stress

Let us breathe again, breathe deeply, breathe the soulful breath of life

Make of us a soulful community

For we have gathered and bear witness to Jesus, our beacon not our boundary.

 

 

Today we are again a land, culture, people and country drenched in sorrow, now due to the unspeakable horror, the unnecessary American carnage in Parkland, Florida. In a decade of deepening humiliation, wherein our current elected leadership readily chooses to exchange long term moral judgment for short term political opportunity, we can but rise up, come Sunday, and face God. One way, this morning, will be to start simply by naming those dead, those children and others sacrificed on the altar of hideously exaggerated individual gun rights:

 

Alyssa Alhadeff, 14

Scott Beigel, 35

Martin Duque, 14

Nicholas Dworet, 17

Aaron Feis, 37

Jaime Guttenberg, 14

Chris Hixon, 49

Luke Hoyer, 15

Cara Loughran, 14

Gina Montalto, 14

Joaquin Oliver, 17

Alaina Petty, 14

Meadow Pollack, 18

Helena Ramsay, 17

Alex Schachter, 14

Carmen Schentrup, 16

Peter Wong,15

 

Wilderness Theology

 

Lent is indeed a time of wilderness travel, reflection, theology and preaching. Over a past decade, 2007-2016, Lent by Lent, here at Marsh Chapel, we identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition.  For this current decade, 2017-2026, we turn to the Catholic tradition.   With Calvin, that is, in the earlier decade, we encountered the chief resource for others we engaged over the last ten years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), Paul of Tarsus (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin), (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008), and, of course, himself, John Calvin.  But beginning with Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, did turn left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we in these years will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, and others, one per year.  Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?  For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list.  We began with Henri Nouwen (2017). We continue with Thomas Merton (2018). Next year, St. John of the Cross (2019).

 

Thomas Merton was born in 1915 and died in 1968, fifty years ago. This Lent we follow his thought by following his life, most famously recounted in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (storey being an English way of spelling what in American English we call story—meaning the same, meaning a level in a house or building). His compelling account of conversion and vocation, placing him for life in a Trappist monastery, holds us in part because of his global engagement with global and local culture, and personal and family life. He reads. He loves art. He travels. He learns. He fails. Most heavily, he loses to death his mother and his father at quite early ages. Another sermon or another occasion might compare and contrast his testimony to that of Augustine of Hippo from the late fourth century. More immediately, though, his personal travels along the terrain of spirit and spirituality, far more in vogue today, we might say, than they were fifty years ago, may illumine a dark corner for a frustrated undergraduate, or challenge a heedless pride for a wise academic, or inspire a new-found energy in a lapsing person of faith, or, say for you, call you again to faith, to the gift of faith, to the reception of the gift of faith. We travel with Thomas Merton this Lent.

 

Wilderness Scripture

 

As Merton reminds us, the body and its habits, in collusion with the unconscious and its rhythms, takes us where we habitually go, to do what we ritually do. We are creatures of habit, guided along by our suppositions and assumptions. Lent arrives to wake us up, to make us aware. Lent arrives to challenge us to move from sensation to reflection, from activity to awareness. Hence the overwhelming response this past Wednesday by Boston University students and others to eight Ash Wednesday services, all heavily attended, half Protestant, half Catholic. This affirmation of ritual in worship will need further attention from us, in the days ahead. Our millennials are teaching us and telling us something.

 

Jesus meets us today in the long experience of the wilderness. The wilderness where reflection quickens. The wilderness where discipline begins. The wilderness where the great questions—freedom, immorality, God, all—may touch us. The wilderness where there is quiet, space, silence. I invite you this Lent to journey with me, one beggar among others, to travel from sensation to reflection.

 

We begin this morning, taking stock of our sources (or media?) of authority, upon which we shall base our coming Lenten teaching. In the Gospel, Jesus hears Scripture, Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased. That is Psalm 2: 7. You are meant to recognize the divine voice echoed here from Holy Scripture. In the Gospel, Jesus honors tradition—baptized by John in the Jordan. In the Gospel, Jesus is driven by the spirit, the breath of God, the spirit of truth, reason and reasoned. In the Gospel, Jesus struggles, and suffers, he experiences depth and height, as do we: tempted, endangered, in need of angelic support. These are the sources of authority on which the gospel is proclaimed—scripture, tradition, reason, experience.

 

Your move today from sensation to reflection involves a recognition of sources for authority.

 

Tread lightly. Your love of Christ shapes your love of Scripture and tradition and reason and experience. You are lovers and knowers too. We are ever in peril of loving what we should use and using what we should love, to paraphrase Augustine. In particular we sometimes come perilously close to the kind of idolatry that uses what we love. We are tempted, for our love Christ, to force a kind of certainty upon what we love, to use what is meant to give confidence as a force and form of certainty. It is tempting to substitute the freedom and grace of confidence for the security and protection of certainty. But faith is about confidence not certainty. If we had certainty we would not need faith.

 

Wilderness Bath

 

Here is a Lenten question: Did you ever feel the need to take a spiritual bath? The layers of accumulated anxiety and estrangement call out for removal. A little steam, a filling tub, some quiet and peace, moments of grace. Did you ever feel the need to take a spiritual bath?

 

Even as the early church had need and experience to remember Jesus as the one who first experienced our communion, in the last supper, so for the same communal reasons, this early legend of Jesus’ baptism met the needs of the primitive church, and so, we may hope, shall meet our own. They too knew alienation. They too estrangement. They too sin and ennui. All that separates you from yourself, from others, from God—this is sin.   All that separates you from your best hope, the real hope of others, and the divine hope in which the world was made—this is sin. The early church found it soothing, healing to be immersed in the water of baptism, and to think of Jesus as the first baptized. Ours is not a biographical account, but a story of faith.

 

Surely, with many generations fore and aft, the early church would have remembered the cleansing holiness of the ten commandments, as they read these words.

 

Likewise, with two thousand years of saints to follow, this same church would have remembered the cleansing compassion of the beatitudes.

 

When they heard the splash of water, they might have thought again of Noah, and the flood. The promise of God’s care, to follow such hurt, they would have seen again in the rainbow: I establish my covenant with you and your descendents after you…This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all generations. I have set my bow in the clouds…the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.

                 

                  When they heard the banishment to the wilderness, the school of experience, of hard knocks, to which every great religious leader from Moses to the Buddha has been sent, they would have recalled another blessing. The blessing of nature in the rainbow would be matched by that of experience in the Psalms. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long…Do not remember the sins of my youth…according to your steadfast love remember me…

 

When the moment of baptism came, John holding Jesus, both of the prophetic tradition, both of a certain courage and calling, both to have tragic fates, both to know and need each other—brothers, really—they would have had something to say, now, a blessing of an emerging sacrament. Every sacrament and every symbol need interpretation. For that reason, the whole of 1 Peter is written as an essay on baptism. Remember what the letter says: And baptism, which the ark of Noah prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience. Baptism—an appeal to God for a good conscience. How timely.

 

When the story, the faith legend of Jesus’ baptism was then told, in a small Mediterranean church, they again would meet their Lord. As do we. Jesus, from Galilee. Jesus, baptized. Jesus, related to John. Jesus, spirit touched. Jesus, beloved. Jesus, tested and tempted. Jesus, tough against wilderness and beasts and Satan. Jesus, guarded by angels. Jesus, preacher. Jesus, preaching good news. Jesus, whose time has come.

 

Wilderness Failure

 

Jesus particularly meets us today in supplication. In supplication, today, we feel or murmur or mutter, perhaps through clenched teeth, a prayer of supplication, a confession of failure:  Free our land of horrid, tragic, gun violence. How will this happen? We see no easy way.

 

But then our minds begin to move. Gun violence is a matter of public health. You have lifted your voice in chorus with those who attack gun violence not as an issue of individual right or freedom, but as an issue of public health and safety. We have had success in other improvement to public health. Reductions in death from smoking. Reductions (some) in death from drinking. Reductions in highway deaths.   Here is a different evil, so we shall need to think differently.

 

How shall we do so?

 

Maybe we shall restrict the sale of ammunition: keep and bear arms all you want, but ammunition we will lock down. Maybe we shall make those who make money on gun sales pay a stiff price for every misuse of their product. Maybe we shall hold households and home insurance responsible for mayhem that emerges from a house.

 

Congress regularly supports the so-called gun lobby, fearing to contradict ist champtions. Oddly, though, they are mistaken about what Americans, and particularly gun owners, think about gun restrictions and gun safety. They mistake the faux representative voice for the people’s voice. ‘85% of Americans and 81% of gun owners favor gun show background checks, which Congress rejected…Since 1960 1.3 million Americans have died from fire arms, which amounts to 80 gun deaths a day.’ The broad swath of the American people, in harmony with the Book of Hebrews, offer prayers of supplication for an angelic deliverance.   And here and there, there is change: ‘In 1970 ½ of all US homes had guns. Today it is less than 1/3.’ Our tendency to conformity, our over-eager deference to authority, and our too willing adaptation to imposed roles weaken us over against these and other challenges. Yet…

 

You have agency and influence. As you pray. As you think. As you speak. And as you vote. You have power, agency and influence. You cannot see the unforeseen future. You do not know what may, against all current expectation, suddenly emerge. Decades ago we lived in a little cottage parsonage in Ithaca, once inhabited by Pearl Buck, she of THE GOOD EARTH, while her husband took a degree at Cornell. It was fifty yards from Fall Creek, a good size river, frozen solid for the cold months. No amount of waiting and watching would shift that ice, and for those years it was Easter, usually, before anything happened. Just block ice, wind, snow, cold, silence. No movement. And then, with no warning, like a sudden angel thunder from heaven itself, in a great cataclysmic whoosh, all that ice would pound down the hill into Cayuga Lake, in ten minutes. It was terrifying to hear, and to see. What combination of underwater thawing and freezing, what combination of sun and shadow, what combination of tiny little changes finally ushered in that apocalypse? Who can say. But you never know when change, even big change, may well arrive.

 

Wilderness Faith

 

We now receive Jesus. Because we are loved, we can love. Marsh Chapel, you have been love for this community for many generations. What you have said and done, stood for and stood by, we now repeat, even as we kneel before God and unknown. In fact, I believe that if you were to write a creed together, it might sound something like this:

 

  1. God is love.
  2. Love is both mercy and justice, both compassion and holiness.
  3. Compassion is more important than holiness.
  4. God loves the world (not just the church).
  5. The church lives in the culture. The church lives in the culture to transform it. (Not above it to disdain it, not below it to obey it, not behind it to mimic it, not before it hector it).
  6. The church is the Body of Christ.
  7. Christ is alive. Wherever there is way, truth, life…
  8. Life is sacred.
  9. Life is a sacred journey to freedom.
  10. The Bible is freedom’s book.
  11. The Bible is a source, not the source, of truth
  12. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath
  13. Women and men, people all people, need each other
  14. There is a self correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe.
  15. God’s love outlasts death.

 

Let us bring who we are to this moment, remembering the wilderness desire, theology, Scripture, bath, failure, and faith, along with promises and gifts of faith, and trusting in Almighty God to heal and sustain in this new season.

 

Merton wrote, I was to become conscious of the fact that the only way to live was to live in a world that was charged with the presence and reality of God (SSM, 208)

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

The Bach Experience

Sunday, February 11th, 2018

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Mark 9:2-9 

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Hill

                        Last Sunday our worship service of Word and Table conclude with the singing of an old hymn, written by a Massachusetts minister J. Edgar Park, who was President of Wheaton College, Massachusetts. He was born in Belfast, Ireland, March 7, 1879 and had his theological studies at New College, Edinburgh, The Royal University, Dublin, and Princeton Theological Seminary. His principal pastorate was in the Second Church of Newton, Congregational, West Newton, Massachusetts, which he served 1926 to 1944, going from there to the Presidency of Wheaton. He was the author of many books, including one of the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale.

You may not in fact remember the hymn we sang, to conclude our service, which is not any detriment to or criticism of you. The hymn title is ‘We Would See Jesus’, number 256 in our venerable Methodist Hymnal, which Hymnal is about to be revised this coming year with all the attendant disagreements, disputes, and ultimately, we trust, a happy and useful outcome for the use of singing Methodists near and far. One of our own faculty here at Boston University is a member of that committee.

The hymn fits our readings from Mark, and fits Epiphany, the season out of which we come, and traces the ministry of Jesus.

We would see Jesus, lo! His star is shining, above the stable while the angels sing

There in a manger on the hay reclining, haste let us lay our gifts before the King 

We would see Jesus, Mary’s Son most holy…

We would see Jesus, on the mountain teaching…

We would see Jesus, in his work of healing…

We would see Jesus, still as of old he calleth ‘Follow me’… 

                        In a few simple verses, the hymn traces the earthly ministry of Jesus, birth, growth, teaching, healing, calling.   This is the Jesus most of us most of the time are most comfortable with, and the Jesus, one could add, that most seminarians prefer to study, the Jesus of parables, of the lilies of the field, of the various healings, of the preachments in valley and on mountain—in short, the human Jesus. This is the Jesus known and heard in Matthew, Mark and Luke, with some occasional exceptions, like today’s reading. We can fairly readily approach this Jesus, we would see him as the hymn says, in the verses and chapters of the Synoptic Gospels.

Now pause, for a moment, and hear again the Gospel today, which is none of this. The Mark 9 Transfiguration is like an invasion of the gospel of John into an other-wise happy earliest Gospel of Mark. A high mysterious mountain. Strange choices about booths. The sudden acclamation of Elijah and Moses. A blinding light. MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM. The Holy. Suddenly not just a teacher or preacher or healer or rabbi, but…This is the Jesus of your life and death. Death makes us mortal, facing death makes us human. This is the Jesus of whom it is said, ‘My Lord and My God’. This is the Jesus to whom we turn in the Lenten challenges, whether or not they come in Lent, the Lord of life and death.   So, our Charles Wesley hymn, in a few moments, is quite different: Christ whose glory fills the skies, Christ the true the only light, Sun of Righteousness arise, triumph o’er the shades of night, Dayspring from on High be near, Daystar in my heart appear

It is this holy grace, this gracious holiness, to which we turn our ears, not our eyes, on the Sundays, like this one, upon which we hear the Gospel as spoken, but also as sung: A day is coming that will judge the secrets [of humankind], Before which hypocrisy may tremble. For the wrath of His jealousy annihilates What hypocrisy and cunning contrive.

                        Dr. Jarrett: how shall we listen, this morning, with particular and careful attention, to today’s cantata?

 

Jarrett

 Thank you, Dean Hill. At first read, the texts of today’s cantata surely align more with the MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM depiction you’ve just described. Cantata 136 warns of the day of judgement when our own hypocrisy and cunning-ways threaten to undo us. The bass soloist tells us that the heavens themselves are not clean, and that all are struck by spots of sin, brought upon us by Adam’s Fall. These depictions endure for much of the cantata, until, mercifully, we are reminded that Jesus’s wounds cleanse and redeem. In the final chorale we sing that even a drop of the Blood of Jesus can cleanse the entire world. The image is one of humankind ensnared in the Devil’s jaws, set free and at liberty by the blood of the lamb.

 

Bach’s anonymous librettist was surely trying to amplify the themes of the lessons heard earlier in the Leipzig service — for Bach these were lessons from Romans and Matthew. They call the Christian to live according to the spirit, not the flesh, along with an admonishment to beware false prophets and hypocrisy. These are the subjects of the internal movements – two recitatives, an alto aria, and a duet for tenor and bass. Bach highlights a few words here with extended melismas for the singers: erzittern or tremble referring to the sinner on judgment day, vernichtet or annihilate describing the wrath of God’s jealousy. In the duet, as if to number our spots of sin, Flecken is set as a melisma. Later in the duet the redeeming Strom or stream of Jesus’s blood is similarly treated, all of which offer aural anchors throughout these two remarkable movements.

A typical cantata libretto draws on several sources for texts. The internal movements were most often newly written poetic texts by someone in close working relationship with Bach. It’s in these texts we find the most theological exegesis worked out. Most often the cantatas concluded with a Chorale by one of the famous Lutheran hymn writers, frequently by Luther himself. The opening movements were typically direct quotes of Scripture, drawing on the Psalms more than any other Biblical source. Bach follows this exact design in Cantata 136, opening his cantata with the 23rd verse of Psalm 139: Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts. In the German: “Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz; Prüfe mich, und erfahre, wie ich’s meine.” Modern German translations of the Luther Bible replace erfahre with erkenne. Regardless, listeners can recognize these four imperative verbs that begin each line, imploring God’s true examination of our inmost thoughts.

Hill

                        I rely with gratitude on John Ashton, a great NT scholar, to keep the Jesus of Mark and also the Jesus of John, who makes an invasive appearance here in Mark 9, both before us. Both Christmas and Easter. Both Life and Death. Both teaching and crucifixion. Both healing and resurrection. Jesus both human divine, both Mark and John, both Mark 1 and Mark 9.   Both ‘We would see Jesus’ and ‘Christ whose glory fills the skies’. Both last Sunday and this Sunday.

No doubt the Synoptic Gospels held their place; but for them Christianity might well have rapidly vaporized into some form of speculative Gnosticism. It did not; the parables of the kingdom and the Sermon on the Mount continued to be regarded as indispensable elements of the Christian message, and—more importantly—the Jesus who preached them remained ever present to the Christian consciousness. 

                        To most modern eyes the portrait painted by the Synoptists is both both simpler and more attractive.   It is the portrait of a man with a special relationship with God, whom he addresses by the intimate name of Abba, Father…He was a man of his time; his teaching and preaching, even his healing miracles, can readily be placed in the context of first century Palestinian Judaaism. If he were suddenly to reappear as he really was he would no doubt seem to us, in Albert Schweitzer’s phrase,’ a stranger and an enigma’, but a recognizable human being nonetheless.

                        Not so the Johannine Christ (we add, here, not so the Christ of the Transfiguration). He does not belong to this world at all: it is almost true to say that he enters it with the purpose of leaving it. He is a pre-existent divine being whose real home is heaven. He enters an alien world with an unprecedented confidence and assurance, knowing who he is, where he comes from, and where he is going…He orchestrates his own passion…he can read Pilate’s heart. There is about him no trace of uncertainty. Master of his fate, captain of his soul… his head bloodied but unbowed, he never had to confront either the fell clutch of circumstance or the bludgeonings of chance. (Ashton, 1991, Understanding the Fourth Gospel, 239)

                         Well beloved, that is, there is a full and deep mystery here, an unfathomable, an uncanny deep, right here in our Gospel, of the sudden appearance of a Jesus who would fit well in John, but not so well in Mark. And is that not, for us, come Sunday, this Sunday, in the hearing of the word and music, a part of our needed reminder, a reminder about the limits of life, about the mystery of life, about the God gift of life, given us well beyond our capacity to understand it? Perhaps we can carry from the beauty and holiness of these precious gospel and musical moments, a sturdy reminder of the great strangeness, the great mystery, the great, tremendous, yes, unearthly voice and presence and grace of our Lord, who comes to us, this morning, interrupting the rest of his more human appearance in Mark, with this scene befitting John, and interrupting our forgetfulness about mystery. In that spirit, let us pray:

Gracious God, Holy and Just

Thou from whom we come and unto whom our spirits return

Thou source of Wisdom, fount of Wisdom, well spring of saving Wisdom

Make of us, we pray, an addressable community

That we might listen

That we might hear

That we might understand

That we might listen, hear and understand before we analyze or criticize

Make of us, we pray, an addressable community

Make of us, we pray, a benevolent community

That we might polish our proclivity for the second thought, the second try, the second chance

That we might expect to uncover a latent goodness, latent in others and in ourselves and across this great, though troubled, globe

That we might become good in ways that become the Gospel

Make of us, we pray, a benevolent community

Make of us, we pray, a soulful community

Alive to spirit, alive to love, alive to grace

Take away from our souls all strain and stress

Let us breathe again, breathe deeply, breathe the soulful breath of life

Make of us, we pray, a soulful community

For we have gathered and bear witness to Jesus, our beacon not our boundary.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

& Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

 

 

 

A Winter Communion

Sunday, February 4th, 2018

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Psalm 147

1 Corinthians 9

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Preface

    ‘Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same’.

            So, Abraham Heschel, whose mighty labors to interpret the Hebrew Prophets were drenched themselves in tears—the joyful tears of adoration, the bitter tears of confession, the heartfelt tears of thanksgiving, the worried tears of supplication.

Prayer is at the heart of communion, especially a winter communion, and its languages are the tongues of adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication.

‘Pray without ceasing’, we are taught in the 5th chapter of the earliest document in our New Testament, 1 Thessalonians.  Without ceasing.

We pray in silence before our worship begins, come Sunday.  Here, in this sacred hour, we set ourselves for the week to come, and set before ourselves what we hold dear, and all in which we are dearly held.

Then: Monday noon in meditation, Monday evening in Compline, Wednesday morning in theological community, Wednesday evening in communion, Thursday noon, both in sanctuary silence and then over an outdoor common table, and privately, meal by meal, morning by morning, we pray.

Prayer is to sit silent before God.  Prayer is to give utter attention.  Prayer is to think God’s thoughts after God.  Prayer, like a poem, is ‘a momentary stay against confusion’ (Frost).   Prayer is our winter communion.

Adoration

            A language learned in prayer is that of adoration.   Here is the tongue of aspiration, delight, hope, imagination, wonder and praise.   In the dim-lit daily world, adorational language can be hard to hear, hard to find, for it is the exuberant utterance of ‘why not’?, of ‘how about?’, of ‘oh my’!, sentences concluding in question marks and exclamation points, more enchantment than disenchantment

Our gospel reading, at heart, is an aspiration, a high hope about human being, human loving, and human life—especially about healing.

Here in Mark 1, the early church remembers forty years later a very high view, an aspirational hope for human healing.   A prayer in aspiration that demons–begone! That upon this earth there yet might be—real friendship, real fellowship, real love, real marriage, the reality of the union of hearts, for which we are made.  For a hint of the eternal, a glimpse of the divine, a glimmer of joy without shade.   How we need that hint in our time of humiliation.  How we need that height in our culture of degradation.

All this takes time and practice. Our aspirations take the support and help of a community to last.

So, in the same breath, and in the same paragraph, the Jesus of Mark’s gospel, and the Lord of Mark’s community, heals the sick, and offers their innocence (not their ignorance) as aspiration.   Innocence is not Holiness.  Holiness comes after Innocence, in the aspirations known both in celebration and in defeat.  Behold Jesus lifts them, lifts us, in his arms.

Hence, a few weeks ago we did sing, ‘Come Let Us Adore Him’.   There is a prayer, a prayer in a wonder-land.  What do you adore?  Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.  Where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.

Our January preachers, with their manifold winter gifts, foretold it:  remember your baptism, behold plenty good room, save what you love, adore restoration not destruction.

So we sing a hymn each Sunday.

Adoration.  A language of prayer.

Confession

            A language learned in prayer is that of confession.  Such a dialect is much needed, in our time, in our generation.  Contrition, compunction, regret, and lament.  “I am sorry”.  “Forgive Me”.

You probably one day suddenly realized the power of confession.  Bishop James Matthews once said, in a memorable sermon, that he came to a day when he just wanted to write down in a list his most memorable shortcomings. (I was thinking of him the other day, visiting our own C Faith Richardson, now 102 years of age, who was his secretary).  He wrote down his mistakes and his regrets.  His regretful mistakes and his mistaken regrets.  That he did, and tossed the list into the fire, and resolved to live a great good life unrestrained by what was past.  “I gave the list to God and to the fire”, he said, “and I headed out into the future”.  Then he added:  “I’m sure you all have done the same, one way or another”.  I wasn’t so sure we all had, but I basked in the confidence—in the living pardon—of his confidence in us.

We depend on this reminder of our fragility.  It keeps us from becoming naïve about the fragility all around us.  Especially the disguised fragility of beloved institutions.  Many churches are one decade  away from demise.  Some countries are one government away from demise.  Our schools, halls of government, businesses, families—all these are far more fragile than they sometimes seem.  They take constant tending, mending, and befriending.   They take daily, careful leadership.  And when over time the fabric begins to fray, devastation may ensue.  Institutions, like people, are nourished by attention to small things. ‘Yard by yard, life is hard.  Inch by inch, it’s a cinch’.

So we offer confession, KYRIE ELEISON, each Sunday.

Confession.  A language of prayer.

Thanksgiving

             A language learned in prayer is that of thanksgiving.  My friend says that all birds are either robins or non-robins.  Well, the prayer book of the Bible is the Book of Psalms, and in that same oversimplified way, the psalms are either laments or thanksgivings, and there are more of the latter.  So today the psalmist is singing aloud a song of thanksgiving.

We know gratitude in hindsight.  Thanksgiving is the gift of the rear view mirror, of real retrospective.  We learn, and we grow.  But as Ralph Sockman repeated, and we now with him, ‘The larger the body of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery that surrounds it”.

Eucharist is a word that means thanksgiving. It is the marrow this morning of our winter communion. Our Eucharist is a thanksgiving in remembrance and in presence.  Eucharist is a thanksgiving in remembrance of our Lord Jesus, his ministry of preaching, teaching and, today, especially healing, his death upon the cross, and his radiant resurrection, our beacon and life.  Our Eucharist is a thanksgiving in presence, an announcement of the divine presence, the real presence of God, here and now, in the humblest of forms.  Eucharist means thanksgiving.

In the humblest of forms.

In the winter of 1982 the Maundy Thursday Holy Communion service was scheduled to occur in the sanctuary of the larger of the two churches, a two-point charge on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, two churches that shared a minister.  And perhaps not too much else.  In fact, to gather the two into one, in communion, was a rare event, with or without the sacrament.  But Maundy Thursday was generally lightly attended, and, for once, all agreed to share the service, one congregation as host and one as guest.  Notice the closeness, the kindred etymology of those to words, host and guest.

Well.  The boiler died in the host sanctuary sometime that day, or perhaps the day before, though its demise was not noticed until about an hour before the service, noticed by freezing choir members there to practice.   In those ancient days there was no mode or media to announce the dilemma, and relocate.  So, after some consider, it was decide to move the service next door into the Methodist Parsonage.  You knew this was the parsonage because of a sign on the porch saying so.  This was an expansive if drafty country house, with two large living rooms, one a parlor with the piano, and the other with couches and chairs, and a large dining room and big country kitchen.   Putting the coats on the porch and the children upstairs, we conjured that we could fit the light Lenten attendance.   Sometimes you generalize, sometimes you specialize, and sometimes you improvise.  A Trustee sat on the piano bench to turn hymn pages for the pianist.  It was crowded.  The children behaved upstairs, at least at the start.  Later you could hear them rustling to run from east to west, giggling as their feet sounded like a small airplane landing nearby.  Then quiet again.

Two churches of people who did not regularly sit together, of an evening, by historical accident and the ingenuity of some lay leaders, sat cheek to jowl.  There was good close singing, in four parts, with the choir dispersed into the community.  There was a warmth quite welcome at 10 below zero outside.  At the time of communion all slowly moved from parlor to living room to dining room into the kitchen to serve and be served.  And at the end a long full silence filled the house.   A long silence, that is, full of thanksgiving.

Thirty-eight years is about the distance in time between the ministry of Jesus and the writing of Mark.  The memory sifts to hold onto what matters, counts, lasts, has meaning.  Of all the worship services in those years, from Christmas to Easter to Confirmation, the one most remembered is the crowded household communion, and the silence, and the thanksgiving.

If you are wondering how to pray, start with a word of thanks, a thanksgiving, a generous recognition of a cause of gratitude.   You will not have far to look.

Sing to the Lord with Thanksgiving, Psalm 147.  I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.  1 Corinthians 9.

So we read a psalm each Sunday.

Thanksgiving.  A language of prayer.

Supplication

            A language learned in prayer is that of supplication.   We name what we need.  Seek and you will find.  Knock and the door will open.  Ask and it shall be given.  Not always.  Not frequently.  Not in a timely way.  But…

You don’t easily get what you don’t name as needed.

In supplication, today, we feel or murmur or mutter, perhaps through clenched teeth, a prayer of supplication. How will this happen?  We see no easy way.

In supplication, we are reminded of who we are and whose we are.  Supplication, the honest statement of what we need, the honest desire to return to a deep personal faith and an active social involvement, against all manner of winds blowing against, helps us build the future, a good future.  Prayer is a kind of prop.

Emily Dickinson had her occasional happy moments and happy thoughts and choice, true words of thanksgiving (amid darker hues aplenty to be sure):

            The Props assist the House

            Until the House is built

            And then the Props withdraw

            And adequate, erect,

            The House support itself

            And cease to recollect

            The Auger and the Carpenter-

            Just such a retrospect

            Hath the perfected Life-

            A past of Plank and Nail

            And slowness-then the Scaffolds drop

            Affirming it a Soul.

 

So we offer our common prayer every Sunday.

Supplication.  A language of prayer.

Coda

            ‘Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same’.

Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent, and are in love and charity with your neighbor, and intend to lead a new life, following after the commandments of God, come, draw near in faith, and take this Holy Sacrament, this prayerful winter communion, to your lasting comfort.

 

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

“Have you come to destroy us?”

Sunday, January 28th, 2018

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Mark 1:21-28

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Good morning! What a pleasure and honor it is to share the good news of Jesus Christ with you this morning. I’d like to thank Dean Hill for asking me to preach today and my colleagues here at the chapel for their support and encouragement.

Today is the fourth Sunday after Epiphany. We are in the liminal time between the celebration of the birth of Christ, and Ash Wednesday. It’s not a memorable season like Advent, when we’re so excited to get to the birth of Christ that we sometimes jump ahead into its celebration a bit early. Or one of Lent, during which we fast, meditate, and prepare for the death and resurrection of Christ. No, the season after Epiphany, in some churches, particularly the Catholic Church, referred to as “Ordinary Time”, is when we hear the stories the growth and development of Jesus’ ministry. It’s when we learn of Jesus’ teachings, healings, and interactions with the people he encounters along the way. We use green paraments to highlight not only the growth and development of Jesus’ ministry, but our own spiritual growth and development through hearing and engaging the retelling of Jesus’ ministry on earth. We are then called to go out into the world and share that spiritual growth through the love of Christ that we share with all people.

This liturgical year, we grapple with Mark’s gospel to help us understand this period of Jesus life. Mark is the shortest gospel and believed by scholars to be the earliest retellings of the life of Jesus. The episodes within Mark’s scripture are much abbreviated, or “raw”, as one commentary I read put it. We get the facts and figures of Jesus’ work in the world, but not much flowery description. But in a way, Mark’s gospel is perfect for this Epiphanytide, this “Ordinary Time.” The gospel jumps right into the action of Jesus’ baptism and ministry. There is no description of the birth of Christ or the events leading up to it, like in Luke’s Gospel. Instead, we encounter the fully grown adult Jesus, baptized by John and announced as the Son and Beloved of God who then begins the work of God in the world. Mark is primarily concerned with conveying who Jesus is as the Holy One, the messiah, and that his authority comes from God. This is fully expressed through Jesus’ words and deeds.

In Mark’s gospel, we and the people Jesus encounters come to know who he is through his acts of teaching and healing. The focus is on Jesus’ authority in these situations. In today’s gospel reading, he is unknown to the people in the temple, but commands their attention through his words and actions. It is only the unclean spirit, or demon, or evil force which possesses the man in the synagogue who recognizes Jesus for who he is and the power that he can potentially wield. “Have you come to destroy us?” is one of the questions posed to Jesus by this evil force. The unclean spirit recognizes that Jesus possesses the authority of God, and questions how that power and authority will be used. Whether this is a sarcastic comment questioning the power of the Holy One, “Have you come to destroy us?” or a genuine inquiry of fear from the unclean spirit, “Have you come to destroy us?” we are not sure. But it gives us an interesting starting point for understanding the type of authority Jesus brings into the world and how our understanding of this authority can shape the ways we understand our Christian identity.

“Have YOU come to destroy us?”

First, let’s focus on the you in this question: “Have YOU come to destroy us?” The “you” obviously refers to Jesus. But Jesus is relatively unknown to the community he is within. The reaction of the people tells us so – he teaches them as one having authority, but not like the way that they had heard from the scribes. Jesus teaches in a NEW way. Not focusing on traditional interpretation of the Torah, as the scribes do, but by relying on the authority of God. The scripture does not share the words that Jesus spoke, but we know from other passages in Mark that his teachings challenge the systems that have led the participants and the leaders of the service into complacency.

We might be able to relate to this reliance on tradition in our own contexts – we become complacent not only to our styles of worship, but how we find ourselves interacting with the social structures that surround us in our everyday lives. “That’s just the way things are.” “This is the way it’s always been done.” But that blind trust can lead to problems like systemic injustices and oppression. What Mark demonstrates through this teaching is that Jesus points out the inadequacy of the teaching going on in the synagogue to reveal the true meaning of God’s relationship with people on Earth. We are called to seek out justice and righteousness, as the Psalmist today reminds us: God’s righteousness endures forever. God is gracious and merciful.

The people in the synagogue are astounded by Jesus’ teaching. From the immediate recognition of Jesus’ authority the story quickly transitions into the man with the unclean spirit getting up and shouting at Jesus. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Why has Jesus come to this synagogue to teach? How will Jesus’ teachings change the relationship between good and evil forces in the world?

Jesus’ teaching is founded in God, from whom his authority derives. His speech is powerful and authoritative because it speaks the truth. Jesus is a prophet, because he speaks the truth that is found in God and God’s will for the world. This authority is visible to those who hear him speak, as is obvious from last week’s gospel, in which Jesus promises Simon, Andrew, James, and John that he will make them “fishers of people” and they drop their nets and follow him. Jesus’ authority is unmistakable. But it isn’t what we might expect from the Messiah.

“Have you come to DESTROY us?”

It is established that Jesus is authoritative in his teaching, but do his actions match his words? Let us refer back to our guiding quote for this sermon, “Have you come to DESTROY us?” The word used by the unclean spirit is destroy in reference to how Jesus will use his power. Destruction is a violent word. It conjures images of razed lands, where no building is left standing. Or the complete obliteration of a person, a system. It might be what you would expect that the Holy One of God may bring to the Earth in order to control or subdue it. It might be what you would expect if it was your way with engaging with the world – to seek pain, violence and destruction instead of life-giving, healing, community. That is what the unclean spirits do, even to the point of causing self-destruction to their hosts, as described in Mark chapter 5.

We know from our own experiences that those with authority and power can slip into using that power for their own ends, to the point of injuring others. Without concern for the greater well-being, without that direct connection with the divine will for justice and righteousness, a person can create a great deal of damage by favoring certain groups of people with their power in ways that divide and amplify systems of oppression. Jesus has the power of God on his side, and it is precisely because of this connection with the divine that he utilizes that power to restore rather than destroy.

Jesus does not destroy. Yes, Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit telling it to “Be silent” and come out of the man, but there is no destruction. The spirit obeys, albeit putting up a fight on its way out, but it leaves. Jesus doesn’t destroy the spirit – where it goes to, we don’t know. But additionally, he doesn’t destroy the unclean spirit’s host, the man. Instead he restores the man to health. He “heals” the man. Jesus does not seek to obtain power for himself in this situation, as the evil forces might do. He serves humanity instead, restoring the man to his full humanity.

Jesus is a teacher and healer during his ministry; not someone who destroys. Can you imagine describing Jesus as a teacher and destroyer? It just doesn’t seem to fit the conception we have of him. He commands power over those things which are damaging to both the individual body and the communal body. He demonstrates that his authority can overcome the unclean spirits, the powers of evil, through the restoration of the person. We may extend this metaphor to say that this person, who is possessed by the unclean spirit, could also be ostracized from his community if his behavior were to continue. We know as much from the story of the man possessed by the legion of unclean spirits in Mark chapter 5 who is physically removed from the community. Jesus restores both the man in the temple and the man exiled to their communities. And in both instances the communities are amazed.

Jesus has power and authority, but he uses in a way that nonviolently transforms. As the Spider Man movies have taught us “With great power comes great responsibility.” Or as saint Luke states in Chapter 12, verse 48, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” Jesus is tasked with the greatest power and responsibility. In order to do the work of God on Earth, he must use his power and authority in a way that restores the earthly community to one of support, love, and inclusion.

“Have you come to destroy US?”

The final factor in this question posed by the unclean spirit is, who is “us”? Up to now, I have been talking about an unclean spirit. Suddenly it is multiplied by the spirit itself – “us.” We may understand this “us” as all evil forces, as those things which prevent flourishing in the world. If we read this passage with a historical critical lens, we may side with commentators who situate the Jewish community in Capernaum as a community under the Roman Empire – perhaps then the “us” are the imperialists who continue to oppress those in their community. Or it may be that this unclean spirit is an actual pre-scientific understanding of what a health concern looked like. But one thing is clear – the forces that recognize Jesus know who he is and recognize his potential power when no one else can.

Today we may see the “us” as the powerful forces we encounter in our lives that keep us from having a full relationship with the divine and from completely expressing God’s love to ourselves and others. These forces may be spiritual, biological, societal, or political. They may make us feel powerless and out of control, just as the man who is possessed appears to be. We may feel like there is no way of overcoming them or destroying them, as it were.

But there is hope. Because Jesus displays that there is the possibility of healing and hope in the face of such challenges. By bringing us a new way that is full of love and care for others, the healing and restoration of our communities is a possibility. As Paul reminds the church in Corinth, it is love that “builds up.” Love builds up our relationships with each other, and it also builds up our relationship with God. We may not be able to destroy the evil that exists in the world, but we are capable of taking away its authority and power over our lives.

Moving toward the future

The gospel for this week reminds us of the great acts of Jesus but also should spark us into action. Jesus, after all, was a radical. And by radical, I mean the definition which comes out of the Latin root, radix, which literally means root. Jesus comes to fundamentally change the way we understand our relationship with God and with each other. His new way of teaching is simplified and relies less on tradition and more on the authentic word of God found within the scriptures. He astounds and amazes the people by using his authority both to teach and to heal and restore. But we must remember that not everyone accepted Jesus’ teachings or his acts of healing as coming from God. He encounters these challenges again and again throughout the gospel of Mark, eventually leading to his own death. He challenges the status quo in a new, nonviolent, but revolutionary way that scares those accustomed to the old ways.

I imagine people’s reactions to Jesus’ teaching to be like the first time I read James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation. As a first year Master’s level student, it destabilized me. It made me question everything I thought I knew about Christianity and emphasized the inherent privilege I possess as someone who is white. It highlighted the systems of oppression found within American society and particularly within the field of theology, which had been primarily developed by Western, white perspectives up until the writing of this book. It felt foreign to me, a challenge to my what I then thought were my brilliant theological ideas, and I just didn’t get it. And, like the unclean spirit in this passage, my reaction, at first, was to reject it. Because it didn’t speak to me. Because it scared me. Because I felt threatened by it. But that kind of teaching is exactly what I needed to grow, to at least try to better understand the lives of those who are oppressed by society. It made me look at the scriptures in a new way. It opened up avenues of many different and varied theological perspectives arising out of theologies of liberation that help shape my personal theological and ethical ideas today. The challenge was a good thing because it opened my eyes to new ways of being in the world. New ways that I am by no means an expert at, but new ways that I can continue to grow into.

There are many times in our lives when I’m sure we wish that Jesus would show up and get rid of the evil and oppressive forces in our lives. That it would be as easy as a command uttered for negative forces to leave us. But it’s not. At least it isn’t for us (it may still be for Jesus himself). We can’t make our personal demons or our societal demons leave us by willing them to go away. But what we can do is recognize them and engage ourselves to reform them. In order to do this properly, however, we must first be able to recognize those forces which have taken priority for us that are in conflict with God’s will. If we can acknowledge the demons then we can take their power away. If we ignore them and pretend they aren’t there, then we allow them to still have power over us. White supremacy, sexism, homophobia, addiction, and hate as well as many other insidious social ills surround us. Our job is to name them for what they are and systematically dismantle the influence they have in our collective lives. This is by no means any easy or pleasant job, but one that speaks to the justice and righteousness found in God.

We are called to be purveyors of Christ’s love in the world. If we recognize Jesus’ authority and how he uses it to bring about change, we can learn from it. Authority and the power that comes with it can easily be mismanaged and improperly used for self-aggrandizement. Jesus is our example – he possesses God’s authority, but uses that authority to serve others. Our power also comes in serving others, as Martin Luther said, being “little Christs” for our neighbors. Through service of others, learning from others, and being in community we can imagine a better future for ourselves. In this Season after Epiphany, this “Ordinary Time,” let us continue to grow in spirit and love.

“Have you come to destroy us?” No, Jesus has come to restore us.

Amen.

– Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students