Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

42

Sunday, January 31st, 2016

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 4:21-30

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Luke

Again, the strange world of the Bible beckons us.  St. Luke, you see, stands every day, every Sunday, before us, here in the nave of Marsh Chapel.  Here is Jesus in all his Dominical Authority.  Here too is Luke.  The Scripture—mighty, ancient, holy—calls to us, today out of Gospel According to Luke.

One day you awake, early, and are able to recall the contours of dream.  Strange.  One day, walking, your mind and memory are visited by a feeling gone fore years.  One day, frightful this, news comes of a loved one’s death.  One day you come to worship to worship.  Behold the numinous, the uncanny, the mysterious, the strange, here, now, the strange world of the Bible.

Today–Luke. (He is east of, stage left of Jesus.  Matthew and Mark are west of, to the stage right of Jesus.  Luke and John are to the stage left of Jesus.  And you can hear that truth in more than one way (☺)).

Those at the dawn of life…in the twilight of life…in the shadows of life…You too were strangers in the land of Egypt…as you have done it to the littlest of these you have done it also to me…

Our Holy Scripture today places us, at first, in a thicket of problems and questions:

The Scripture is fulfilled in its hearing.  A   prophet is not honored at home.  Elijah and Elisha go to Sidon and Syria.  The crowd is outraged and poises to attack.  Jesus eases on down the road.

What is going on here, in this strange world of the Bible, which beckons to us to leave behind our mercantile mediocrity?

The Scripture is fulfilled, not in a perfectly just world, in a perfected justice, like that, frankly acclaimed in Isaiah, but in the Reader and the Voice.  Isaiah’s literal prophecy was not fulfilled, and to date has yet been fulfilled.   Another fulfillment Jesus acclaims:

The resurrection is the preaching of the gospel.  The gospel is more than justice.  Now real religion, for sure, is never very far from justice.  But justice, alone, the prophetic, alone, is not the gospel, some of the last fifty years of quasi-theological education to the contrary not with-standing.  The gospel is bigger, truer, deeper–and more personal than that.  Heaven does not touch earth only or fully with the passage of  a perfect national health care bill, as good as that would be. The life, death and destiny of Jesus Christ are not summarized in a global tax on capital, as laudable as that might be.  Your ticket through the pearly gates is not the resuscitation of American socialism, as healthy as that might be.  No. The prophetic is a part but not the heart of the gospel.  The prophetic tradition is a just part but not the full heart of the gospel.  We can be happy to be known as ‘the school of the prophets’.  Would that we were known too as ‘the school of the preachers’.

That is, Elijah and Elisha here are remembered for a very particular reason, one at odds with justice.  They have gone outside of Israel, outside of the community of faith, outside of the expected audience, and outside of their own prophetic tradition.  With Israel hungry in famine, the chosen people awaiting rain water, Elijah comforts them not, not at all, but goes instead to a foreign land, that of Tyre and Sidon, to alone woman, a lone widow, a lone gentile.  With Israel halt and lame and leprous, in need of healing and health care, Elisha comforts them not, and goes away into a foreign land and heals a Syrian, a lone gentile.  Jesus’ sermon at home, where, as with every prophet, he faces a tough home crowd, explodes the minor, limited appeal of justice…to universalize, to preach, the gospel.  The gospel is not justice…but love.  No wonder the crowd is so angry.  The gospel moves away from the interior to the exterior, from the expected to the unexpected, from the just to the loving, from the familiar…to the strange.

In our passage, Luke has given us the whole of his mysterious gospel in miniature.  He has given us a prototypical text:  Isaiah, 61, with its theme of deliverance to those who are hurting.  He has given us, next, a reminder that God works in God’s own ways, as he did in the days of Elijah and Elisha, when those outside of the faith community were helped first.  He has given us a warning, through the threat of the crowd to throw Jesus to death, of what awaits Him at the end of the road from Nazareth to Jerusalem.  He has further given us a fragrant scent of promise, as Jesus escapes, the same sense we are given at Easter—death cannot hold him, even death cannot hold him, not even death can hold him.  He is the Lily of the Valley…

God is at work, at work in the world, at work in the world to make and keep human life human, often to the consternation and surprise of God’s very own people.  (If you go into the ministry, don’t go in needing to be liked.  You may like to be liked without needing to be liked.  If you need to be liked you will not be able to say what needs saying, when people don’t like it, to do what needs doing, when people don’t like it, to preach what needs preaching, when people don’t like it. Strive to be, in the words of a one time presidential candidate, criticizing his opponent, ‘likeable enough’ (☺).  Some of that is underneath Luke 4. )

Forty Two

Strange, uncanny things occur.

Here is a baseball story.

It seemed fitting in Boston not to talk about football this Sunday, so the historical narrative comes rather from the national pastime, invented, as you well remember, in Cooperstown NY, by Abner Doubleday, more than 150 years ago.   It is a great sport, in which you can strike out 7/10 times and be a superstar.  Failure never felt so good.

Besides, football has its own problems, hard as it is for those of us who are avid fans to see.  We love the game.  Yet the spectacle of football, weekend by weekend, is at worst a cultural apotheosis of what one writer harshly called ‘violence, greed, racism and homophobia’ (NYRB 1/16).  As our Boston University researchers, Robert Stern and Ann McKee continue to highlight, football, in Vince Lombardi’s words, ‘is not a contact sport but a collision sport’.  30% of professional football players suffer dementia.  So maybe it will be all right to leave behind our beloved gridiron, at least for a while, and tell a story about a kinder, gentler sport.

Look back nearly a century.  Enter, by imagination, the main street of a small, poor southern town.  The town is Cairo, Georgia.  On one street there is a family with five children.  The year is 1919.

Strange, uncanny events take place.  Now move west, out to Pasadena, a few years later.  We think of Pasadena as the home of the Rose Bowl, that place where everyone is in shirt sleeves on New Year’s Day, while we shiver.  Brrr…One of those children, one of the five, from Cairo, Georgia, has graduated from Pasadena College.  He has four letters, four major sports, one of which, in some ways the least of which, is baseball.  He hits, he fields, he runs, he scores.  In Pasadena.

The ball player from Pasadena took a detour into the army, in the heart and heat of WWII.   In 1945 though he signed up to play professional baseball with a team called the Monarchs, a team in Kansas City.  Do you remember them?  They were the longstanding team in the old Negro leagues.  That was short-lived.   He soon got a better offer to play in Montreal, for the Royals, which then was a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

You remember the Dodgers.  ‘The Bums” they were called, if memory serves.  That couldn’t win for losing, couldn’t organize a two- car funeral, couldn’t compete with another team from NYC, whose name escapes me right now, and us on a regular basis.   He batted .330 in his first year, up in Montreal.  Summer starts about July 1 in Montreal.

Our Cairo GA fellow, our Pasadena star, our war veteran ballplayer, batting .330—do you recognize him yet?  Hold that thought.

That year, 1945, a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University, and its former baseball coach, now President of the Dodgers, edged his way toward making history.  Now Ohio Wesleyan, as you well know, was founded in 1842, along with other freedom and abolition loving colleges in the buckeye state, from Cleveland to Cincinnati, born near the same time.  Its graduates have included Tracey Jones, Norman Vincent Peale, Ralph Sockman, Ernest Fremont Tittle and Robert Allan Hill, and all his kids.  Ohio Wesleyan is a small Methodist school located on the banks of the Olentangy River, in a town know for horse racing, Delaware, Ohio.  An early Ohio Wesleyan President is with us today, in the balcony, well, actually, in the stained glass up there, Bishop James Bashford.  The OWU football team is known as the Battling Bishops, a name that does not often strike terror into the hearts of the opposition, but oh well.  The OWU baseball coach, now the President of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was the one who made the Montreal arrangement, but with a bigger idea in mind.  In 1947, there were no black players in major league baseball. But the Pasadena star and the Ohio Wesleyan coach were about to make history.  Do you recognize them yet?

The coach is Branch Rickey, and the player is Jackie Robinson, number 42.  Branch Rickey, for whom the Athletic Building and Fields at Ohio Wesleyan are now named, was making his move.  Why?  Many years earlier his team from Delaware had a fine black catcher.  But when the team traveled to other states, or even into the Hawking Hills of southern Ohio, hotels would close their doors.   One night Rickey solved the problem by having his catcher stay in his own room.  He came in after a meeting to find the young man weeping and fiercely washing his arms, saying, ‘Can’t I change my color?’.  Rickey vowed that sometime he would do something about segregated baseball.  Rickey was not a saint.  He was a businessman running a losing team nick-named ‘The Bums’.   But he had his faith, his own experience, his sense of history, and his vow to live out.  He needed just the right player.  He recognized that player in Jackie Robinson.

Some idealized longing for justice, alone, would never have brought Branch Rickey to take the risk, to find the courage, to develop the imagination to integrate baseball.  That took love.  Love nurtured in a quiet home.  Love taught in a simple church.  Love preached, season in and out in a Methodist congregation. Love still in the water along the banks of the Olentangy, at Ohio Wesleyan.  Then, in a descript hotel room, with two lodgers, one coach and one catcher, somehow arrived the explosion, the resurrection, the uncanny sense of consanguinity, like that in the time of Elisha and Elijah, like that Jesus preached in Nazareth, the realization that the gospel of love carries over the lines of faith, the plans of justice, the boundaries of religion.

Jackie Robinson ducked bean balls, suffered spikes, endured taunting, hazing, racist rhetoric, and died, by the way, in Connecticut in 1972, still a fairly young man.  His courage, grace under pressure, had a physical cost in the long run.  But on April 15, 1947, Robinson stood at the plate in Ebbets field, played alongside Pee Wee Reese, stole home 19 times in his career, led the ‘Bums’ to beat the Yankees in the World Series of 1955, served for two decades in leadership of the NAACP, (whose current President Cornell Brooks will be with us here at BU\SPH on Wednesday), became the highest paid athlete in the country by retirement, and founded his own bank.  In Cooperstown, in 1962, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame a decade before he died.  His number, ‘42’, across the whole of Major League Baseball, now goes unused, in tribute to him.

And today is his birthday, January 31.  1/31 is the birthday of 42.

I heard William McClain, an African American preacher, tell about growing up in Tuskegee Alabama. He grew up listening to the team Branch Rickey fielded in Brooklyn.  “When Jackie stood at the plate, we stood with him.  When he struck out we did too.  When he hit the ball we jumped and cheered.  When he slid home, we dusted off our own pants.  When he stole a base, he stole for us.  When he hit a home run, we were the victors.  And he was spiked we felt it, a long way away, down south.  He gave us hope.  He gave us hope.”

Love

Love outlasts death.  Love nourishes a lasting hunger for justice, which hunger alone can never feed itself.  Love inspires hope.  Another day, we can honor those, a few, who took the example of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, and applied it to themselves.   Strange, strange world…For example, who would have thought that the successor to the flawless personality of Jackie Robinson, would be eminently flawed character of Curt Flood?  Yet it was Flood, almost alone, who took the baton from Robinson and ran the next lap.  But that is another sermon, for another day.  For example, the young leadership of our own home team, the Red Sox, last month made a startling, strong statement about race past and future in Boston.  For example, Rickey’s own humble Methodist church now is moving toward a rendezvous with destiny, and truth, over the full humanity of gay people.

Love is stronger than death.  Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.   Or, as Paul put it…

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

 Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful;

 it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;

it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.

For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; 

 but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.

So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

The Architecture of Prayer

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 4:14-21

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Preface

To illumine the imagination by the beauty of God.  To quicken the conscience by the holiness of God.  To warm the heart by the love of God.  To devote the will to the purposes of God.

An architecture of prayer.  A house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

Let us pause for moment along the trail.  Our journey of faith, cradle to grave, carries us along, headlong, day by day.  In this year, this school year, this calendar year, this liturgical year, this particular year, we have attended together to prayer.

Now we have had other fish to fry, to be sure.  Various thematic Sundays in the fall, from Matriculation to Thanksgiving.  The seasons of Advent, and Christmas, and the New Year, and the legacy of Martin Luther King, as well.  We have our struggles—with health, with direction, with trauma, with worry, with change.

Yet our common mind, our shared intention, here, has this year been to deepen, to broaden, to strengthen, our life in prayer.   Prayer makes the mind still before God.  Prayer is certain sitting silent before God.  Prayer is the strain to think God’s thoughts after God.  Prayer is the hurt of loneliness become the joy of solitude.

Prayer puts eternity into time by the memory, which like a lasso casts its circle around a day past. (Not to go all Marcel Proust on you!) When we can truly evoke a day past, today, when we can see and hear a day from the dead past in the experience of this hour, then time has given way, and we are raised from the dead.  

 That is the glory of an education.  With it you are freed from the present.  You are transported out of this time, and into another.  January is a good month, but not a great one.  2016 is a good year, but not a great one.  The 21st century is a good century, but not a great one (at least not yet).   So, we want of course to learn all we can about context and contexts, about integration and synthesis, about analysis and critique of our time—5%.  The rest is an escape from today, a liberation from the now, into the eternal now.  For those in theology it is biblical, historical, philosophical, pastoral study, and the chance to see the desert stars with Amoun of Nitria, to walk the North African sands with Augustine, whose Latin was great and whose Greek was not, to immerse yourself in love with Bernard, in grace with Luther, in vital piety with Wesley, in short, not to be stuck at in January 2016.  Behold:  you may skate on the pond of eternity if you truly leave the present and enter the past.

Do you pray?  How do you pray?  How shall we pray?  Do you know the Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, the Apostles’ Creed, the 10 commandments, the beatitudes? (A mind is a terrible thing to waste). What is the architecture of your house of prayer?

Illumination

Step first with me into an open dazzling spacious room, glass before and above, light all light filling the parlor.  Such a room is like a beach, like the sand and surf and open big blue of the shoreline.  Pause.  Light streaming in from the higher windows.  Light, sunlight or light with shadow, entering the parlor from the lawn and from the street.  Light, moonlight, starlight, light at night joining with candles and lamps.  The Scottish call the moon ‘the lamp of the poor’.

In God’s light we see light.  Light opens life, and prayer initially turns to the light, like the weary soul turns east when the dawn has come.   Prayer illumines the imagination.

Luke loves to open Jesus’ story.  At every turn Luke adds.  His main addition is half his gospel, from Luke 9 to Luke 18.  But that does not surprise us because he does so all along the way.  He follows Mark, but paints in extra accounts.  Today, where Mark simply has Jesus show up in synagogue, teach, and be rejected, Luke has added a sermon of sorts, a mixed quotation from Isaiah 61.  He hears Jesus this way.  Luke hears Jesus announcing deliverance from human hurt, and especially deliverance for the poor.   He adds to the gospel as he writes his gospel.

He praises, adores, loves, enjoys, celebrates the divine light splashing upon human life!   This is the first room in the great architectural design of prayer.  ‘When I consider the work of thine hands…’

You may be neither fully a theist nor technically an atheist, neither fully an existentialist nor technically a naturalist. Neither naturalist nor supernaturalist, though if you allow one definition, ‘supranaturalist’ might work.  Repeated citations of Chesterton, Sockman, and Hammarskjold, regarding wonder will have to suffice.  You may think we can say less than most of the theists say, and more than what most of the atheists say.  You may think atheists know too much and the theists too little.  You may think the atheists say too much and the theists say too little.  You may recall JB Phillips’ little book, Your God is too Small; or maybe on the contrary it is Wordsworth who touches you, ‘to see eternity in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower’   We are not really in a position to say what God can or cannot be, nor what God can or cannot do.  We are surrounded, shadowed, embraced, and faced by mystery.  Great, deep, fathomless mystery.   We know neither less nor more of God, in one sense, than did the psalmist, or Paul, or Nehemiah or St. Luke.

Illuminating prayer begins with hymnic praise, hence the gift of Methodism, the singing Methodist.  The heavens are telling the glory of God…

Awareness

Now walk with me into another room, this one small and austere.  It might be a library in a large home.  It is quiet more than the books, here, that apprehends us.  A lamp, a chair, a painting.  Yet the books, large and small, ancient and modern, Bible and Shakespeare, stand before us to embed our prayer in the range and wealth of human experience.  Of human suffering.  Our lot is more to suffer than to settle, more to suffer through things than to settle things.

Here we can make a list of mistakes, ancient and modern, personal and collective, and learn from them.

But are we ever fully free, heart and spirit, to see and be and be awed by the sunrise, to at and be entranced by the night sky, to love and be in love with the beloved, to swim in the fresh water of freedom, grace and love?  Do we live to work or work to live?

The world does not revolve around your inbox.  

What if meaning is not in connectivity but in dis-connectivity, being truly plugged in is going unplugged, real surfing is really surfing, with ten toes not fingers, and faithful wisdom inspires a courage to ‘tune out, turn off, drop in’?

With a little quiet, we too as a people can recall the language of compunction, the grammar of contrition, the syntax of lament, the alphabet of confession.  Our current grotesquerie of rhetoric in the public, political sphere, was not born last night.  Such unspeakable speech comes up out of a long, pained, tragic history.  It comes from somewhere. Listen for its march.  As our friend Ed McClure asks, is our rhetoric that of confrontation or conciliation?

In the library, lamp lit, psalter open, quiet around, we might get better acquainted.  With ourselves.  In the new, lovely movie, CAROL, the protagonist declares (in a library), ‘I am no good to anyone if I cut against my own grain’.  We will add the footnote to Dean Thurman.

Warmth

Here is a third step forward, yet another room, but this one with a hearth.  Neither parlor nor library, here is a den, and fire behind a grate.  The embers lift off of the logs.  The wood crackles.  The ancient experience of firelight warms us.  As it did for you on first camping trip, or your first winter hike.  Sit for a moment in the January cold and thaw out.  Dry your mukalucks, tuc and gloves.  Here is a grate.  Here is a fire.  Here is a chimney drawing well.  Prayer brings us back before love.  What do you love?  Whom do you love?  How do love?  You tell me how you love and I will tell you who you are.

Hear the Gospel.  St. Luke does not here commend to us an agenda, some work, a proper policy and procedure.   He announces, before the fireplace.  He announces what God has done.  The prophetic is a part of the Gospel but not the heart of the Gospel.  The Gospel is God in Christ, reconciling the world to God-self.  Paul says the same in 1 Corinthians.  He does not admonish or direct.  He does not say, ‘become a body, become the body’.  He does not write a book of discipline.  He announces.  You are the body.  This is given to you.  Like an architecture of prayer—parlor, library, den, kitchen—you are the recipients of grace.

‘Warmth, warmth, warmth, we are dying of cold, not of darkness.  It is not the night that kills, but the frost’ (Unamuno).   It is not the night of ignorance that kills as much as the frost of hatred.  It is not the night of unknowing that kills as much as the frost of unfeeling.

We send warmth to our listeners in Washington DC, in northern Virginia (including my attorney brother John) and in New York City, this morning.  We have been there.

Last Monday our MLK speaker was the US poet laureate Juan Herrera, who came to Boston from sunny California.  His presence warmed us.  His voice warmed us.  His humor warmed us.   He helped us get up again to face hard things with hope.  You are here out of love, to face hard things with hope.  He remembered elementary school in San Diego.  He spoke almost no English.  In the third grade his teacher was Mrs. Sampson.  She taught him, but more, she cared about him.  She could see that he would survive the night on his own, but not the frost.  One day, he remembered vividly, in the third grade Mrs. Sampson looked at him.  Mrs. Sampson called to him, in the back row.  She said, ‘John, you have beautiful voice.  John, you have a beautiful voice.  Come up here to the front of the room.  Come up here to the front of the room.  Sing for us.  Sing ‘three blind mice’.  Sing for us.  You have a beautiful voice.  You have a beautiful voice. “I write while I’m walking, on little scraps of paper,” he said. “If I have a melody going, I can feel it for days.”

A melody like Rilke’s:

Flare up like flame

and make big shadows I can move in.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

Devotion

We end in the kitchen.  Why does everybody always end up in the kitchen?  You can spread your guests and pastries through all the house, and into every room, but all gather, in the end, in the kitchen.  A place of labor, of production, of distribution, of nurture, or community, of shared affection, the place for the community of faith working through love.  Water splashing, knives cutting, plates filled and unfilled.   My grandfather stationed himself at the sink, following dinner, to wash while others dried and stored the dishes.  How vibrant that after dinner conversation, now many decades gone!

No meal is perfect.  In the kitchen we gather for devotion to shared divine tasks.  To feed the hungry.  To clothe the naked.  To visit the sick.  To release the prisoner.  We make our mistakes here and we acknowledge our regrets here and we move forward together here.  To devote the will to the purposes of God.

Some of our doing may involve reshaping our work life. One accomplished journalist, Janet Malcolm, recently (6/7/13) expressed regret about her chosen profession: ‘I learned over time that journalism is morally indefensible…it is a moral anarchy that willfully places a text’s necessities over and above a person’s feelings’.  She came  to the ability to face the hard and hardened truth of her occupation, from one perspective.

Sometimes it takes calamity, micro or macro, to teach us devotion and purpose.  As Proust wrote, Illness is the doctor to whom we pay most heed:  to kindness, to knowledge we make promises only; pain we obey (II, 104).  Thomas Hardy: ‘a certain provincialism of feeling is invaluable’.

We are committed here, speaking of devotion and purpose, to the shaping of a community that honors, or tries to, the freedom and soul and personhood of young adult women and men, but also the  privacy and safety and security of emerging young adult women and men.  Our work with women, with communities of sexual minorities, with survivors of predatory behavior on campus, with themes, now either neglected or denigrated, of honor of morality of virtue of sensibility of respect, continues today.  

In the kitchen, prayer helps the work continue.

Coda

Prayer illumines the imagination by the beauty of God.  In the parlor.

Prayer quickens the conscience by the holiness of God.  In the library.

Prayer warms the heart by the love of God.  In the den.

Prayer devotes the will to the purposes of God. In the kitchen.

Though what I dream and what I do

In my weak days are always two

Help me, oppressed by thing undone

O Thou whose deeds and dreams are

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Transitions

Sunday, January 10th, 2016

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Good Morning! It’s a pleasure to be in the pulpit of Marsh Chapel again during this first week of Epiphany. My thanks to Dean Hill and the rest of my Marsh Chapel Colleagues for the opportunity to speak with you today.

Well, we’ve transitioned into a new liturgical season within the church this week. Christmas is officially over, the magi made it to the manger! We’re all getting back into our post-holiday work routines, or preparing for the next semester to begin. I don’t know about you, but the transition from the holiday season has been somewhat of a rough one for me – waking up before 8am, no more afternoon naps, watching less TV. Well, ok, so maybe marginally less TV – that’s been harder for me to transition out of. Over the past week or so, my husband and I have been binge-watching the HGTV show, “Property Brothers.” If you haven’t seen this show, the premise is basically that a couple or an individual is looking to purchase a home, have great expectations for what they want in a home, come to realize that those expectations cost a lot of money, and then end up purchasing a “fixer-upper” home that gets renovated. One of the brothers is a real estate agent, so he helps them find and purchase the home, and the other brother is a contractor who creates the vision of all the things that the homeowners want and executes it for them. I don’t know why, but the process and drama of the show is addictive…episode after episode you get drawn into the personal quirks of the potential homeowners and the unexpected problems they run into in renovating a house. But it hit me a few days ago that the storylines in Property Brothers are really similar to the narrative of the Baptism of Jesus in Luke. No really, there’s a connection.

One of the big parts of the show is the brothers, Drew and Jonathan, getting the homeowners on board with doing renovations. There’s usually a bit of played up drama at this point – people wanting a house that they can just move into instead of having to do work on an older, out of date house.  Most of the homebuyers at some point complain about having to do renovations – some about the time it will take or the expense, but most about not really being able to see how a rundown place could be transformed into something new. How what they desire can come about in a space that they can only see in one way. The property that they purchase will undergo a transformation, and they themselves will go through a great period of transition, of living their lives through this process of transformation. Although his primary job on the show is to be the designer/contractor, Jonathan ends up reaffirming and consoling the homebuyers that the vision really will come true, they just have to be patient and realize that he does know what he is talking about. And in the end, it usually ends up working out – the property brothers have helped individuals find a home and make it fit their renovated vision.

What does a reality television show about home purchasing and repair have to do with today’s Gospel lesson about the Baptism of Jesus? Well, they both describe the complicated nature of transitional moments. Transitions are hard. Whether it be buying a new home, starting a new job, grieving a loss, or some other massive life change, the period of going from what was to what will be can be daunting. But at the same time, it can also be exciting. New possibilities, new relationships, new discoveries about yourself. But in that transitional moment, the mixture of old and new, of intimidation and expectation, can be overwhelming.

In today’s gospel, we learn of Jesus’ baptism and the events surrounding it. We encounter John the Baptist, a relative of Jesus (according to Luke), who recognized who Jesus was when both of them were still in utero.  Remember, back in Advent? He leaped in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came to tell her she was pregnant. It’s that same person. John has special knowledge of Jesus’ origin and who he will become, so it’s not surprising that he plays an important part in the start of Jesus’ ministry.

I will say that it’s unfortunate that our gospel reading starts where it does today, because before this section that is focused on the baptism of Jesus, there is a description of what John is doing and his interaction with the people he attracts. I think this is integral to actually understanding why the people thought John was the Messiah and also how John’s ministry connects with Jesus’ ministry. For some context, I will read part of it for you now:

Luke 3: 2-14

… the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight. 
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth; 
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’

 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

John is called by God in the wilderness to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, as stated in the book of Isaiah. So he begins his prophetic ministry, baptizing those who seek repentance for their sins. However, John does not just baptize those who seek to be included as part of those who are chosen. He is also very clear that it’s not just claiming one’s heritage as part of the family of Abraham that will save the people, but that they must also behave in appropriate ways, acceptable to God, which will support the community. He instructs them to share what they have, to not cheat other members of the society, and to not abuse any power that they might have in positions they hold in society.

Doesn’t this all sound a little bit familiar? I think it helps to set the context for the gospel reading we heard today – John is not just preparing the way for Jesus by baptizing people, but also reminding the people of the words of God found in the book of Leviticus to love their neighbors as they love themselves, especially when it comes to fair distribution of property. John points back to the historical roots of Judaism. He uses his position as a prophetic voice to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. However, like some enthusiastic groups of people, the crowds misidentify John as the Messiah. Instead of taking this honor and running with it, John says “no, you’ve got it all wrong. I’m not the Messiah.” John knows his role – bridging the old ways of Judaism with the new reality that will be found in the life and death of Christ.

John is a transitional figure – he has the vision of the future, but emerges from the past. He fits within the prophetic tradition of Judaism, but knows that the Messiah will bring a change to the way people understand their relationship with each other and with God. John knows his role and his position in this narrative – he is at the threshold of something new, and part of his role is to prepare the people for this great transition – how they should behave before and after this transition takes place. Luke’s gospel is specifically focused on Jesus’ ministry with the poor and the oppressed, and John’s message of both repentance and goodwill to others continues this idea.

Luke’s gospel doesn’t tell us the story of Jesus’ baptism the way most of us think of it. There’s no mention of the Jordan River, in fact, the actual occurrence of Jesus’ baptism almost seems like an afterthought. Jesus “was baptized” – there’s no grand description of Jesus wading into the Jordan with John, and John baptizing him. Instead, it’s the events and the people surrounding Jesus’ baptism that make it special. The practice of baptism in Judaism at this time was a practice of repentance – those who were sinful came to repent of their sin and be washed clean. So it would seem that Jesus would not need to be baptized in this manner according to the teachings of the church. But Jesus chooses to be baptized. Not individually, as some sort of demonstration for others, but as a part of the general crowd of people that were baptized. It is only afterward, when Jesus is praying that a new element of Baptism is introduced. The Holy Spirit descends in a form like a dove and God’s voice booms a pronouncement that Jesus is God’s son and that God is well pleased with him. It is a dramatic appearance of the trinity, to not only Jesus but to all who are present for baptism.

Baptism goes through its own type of transformation in this story as well. While it retains its meaning as being washed clean and repentant of sin, it also endows the Holy Spirit. As we saw in the reading from Acts today, the Holy Spirit doesn’t always necessarily come at the same time as the physical act of baptism – it could actually come before, during, or after the practice of baptism by water, according to the Bible. Baptism washes us clean and also seals us with the Holy Spirit. We are marked as one of God’s children, as part of a community, as part of the Body of Christ.  We welcome each other into the community of Christ through this practice.

Luke’s description of Jesus’ baptism also highlights the importance of community in the process of baptism. Jesus identifies himself as part of the community by being baptized with all the others who were present. God’s announcement to Jesus about who he his is not just for Jesus Jesus’ identity is not a secret, and the start of Jesus’ ministry to the world, an important focus of Luke’s gospel, is ready to begin.

We encounter transitions every day. Some transitions are barely noticeable. We learn new things, we encounter new people, we try new foods, we get slightly older – but all of these moments affect who we are as people. The cliché that you are not the same person as you were yesterday is true. But we tend to notice transitions when they are big. Sometimes transitions are actions we choose to take – we change jobs, move, get married – and some are not – a loved one passes away, we lose our job, we have a major medical crisis. For the first kind, we can attempt to choose how those transitions will happen – at the very least when they will occur. But most of the transitions in our lives have aspects that we have no control over. An example from Property Brothers – the homeowners choose to undergo renovations, the host of the show chooses what the design elements will be, but inevitably there tends to be an unforeseen problem that both the homeowners and the designer have to deal with. We try to make plans for our transitional points, but sometimes life doesn’t allow those plans to go the way we want.

Transitional moments do not have to be an individual moment either – we go through transitions as a community at both the local and global levels. Even as a church we experience transitional moments within our greater social context that point us toward new ways of seeing the world and engaging with it. These moments of transition can be harder to deal with as people can have different approaches as to how to deal with the problems that are spurring a transitional moment. Unfortunately sometimes our reactions during these transitional moments can be delayed because of the many diverse opinions within society. This can continue to create harm. For example, delays in our response to climate change as a society have continued our dependence on fossil fuels and continued the emission of greenhouse gases that have created irrevocable damages to the earth. Our failure as a country to adequately address issues of gun control have led to more mass shootings, more innocent deaths, to the point that reports of them have become commonplace in our media. These moments of transition are opportunities. They are not just events that happen out there in the world, they are moments that affect all of us. What we can do is remember who we are as members of the Body of Christ.

We do have a choice in how we respond to those unforeseen moments within transition. There is one thing that is always constantly present to us: God. God is present to John as a voice in the wilderness, God is present in Jesus, God presents Godself in bodily form like a dove through the Holy Spirit, God speaks to Jesus and lets both Jesus and those present know that this is God’s son. God is always there to rely on and direct us forward. Our baptism reminds of our connection with the trinity. God’s constant presence to us does not mean our lives will be easy, and it would be foolish to think that this would be the case. However, God’s constant presence does mean that we should remember the love of God in how we treat one another and the world around us. We are called to love ourselves and to love our neighbors in a radical way through the teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Often times, the way that we are able to see God’s presence is in community with others. Reaching out to our community for help and support during times of transition can be a helpful aid in making it through this liminal state. The wisdom and assistance of others can help us adjust to new ways of being in the world, or help us to think about how to move forward from a pivotal transitional moment. Even Jesus had a community of support around him as he was about to begin his ministry.

As we continue to transition into the future, dealing with our own personal periods of transition and our larger societal moments of transition we can remember some things. One is shown through Luke’s narrative today – that transition into a new way of being does not mean that we have to leave behind those things that were in the past – they have helped to influence who we are and will become. The past can inform our decisions – it is like the bare bones structure of a house upon which we can build. We cannot forget our past because without it we have no foundation. But we also cannot be afraid to make transitions into the future. We cannot be afraid to speak out against injustice, to change how we live our lives because we think it will be too hard, or to come together as community and support one another through these transitions. While daunting, these transitions are also exciting because of the possibilities they bring about. Like John, we need to have a vision for the future. We cannot get caught up in our own egos, misidentifying ourselves as outside of the problems or more powerful than we actually are as individuals, but instead see that at the heart of all changes and transitions there needs to be support from one another and, most importantly support from God.

Amen.

–Ms. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

One and All

Sunday, January 3rd, 2016

Click here to listen to the full service

John 1:1-5, 9-13

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Happy New Year!  and welcome to this second Sunday of the Christmas season here at Marsh Chapel.  We celebrate the birth of Jesus for many reasons, and our scriptures this morning give us one reason in particular.  For it is not just as individuals that Jesus Emmanuel comes to us; he comes to us also as individuals in community; indeed, he comes to form us as individuals into a community, the community of the church, his heart and mind, ears and eyes, hands and feet still at work in the world.

Jeremiah reminds us that God’s work to build and restore community did not

begin with Jesus’ entry into the world.  It has been a constant in God’s relationship with humanity.  Jeremiah writes from exile in Egypt, while the rest of Israel is exiled and captive in Babylon.  This breaking apart of the community of Israel is a consequence of their choices and the choices of others.  Israel has chosen to break the covenant they had agreed to with God, and they also suffer global forces beyond their control as the Babylonians choose to expand their empire.

But Jeremiah keeps the vision of a restoration beyond exile.  God promises the fulfillment of this vision, a vision of an Israel brought back together from dispersal, a vision of homecoming and of a new covenant that will not be broken.  In spite of seemingly overwhelming forces against its happening, God will reunite the community.  And this reunification will be marked by dancing, merriment, abundance, and joy.  

The author of Ephesians writes out of a conflict within the new and growing Christian movement.  Jews and Gentiles have long been separated by law and culture.  Now they find it a challenge to integrate into this new inclusive community of church.  The author of Ephesians reminds them that they are united in Christ.  Because of that unity there are divine benefits as a present reality in the church’s life.  God provides forgiveness, wisdom, and spiritual power. Through the Holy Spirit God also provides an inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people.  Thus the church is a Spirit-filled community that brings the presence, power, and peace of God not just into its own life, but also into the life of the world.

The Psalmist glorifies God for three great blessings.  The first is the security God provides through inheritors, peace, and abundance.  The second is the creative word of God in creation.  And the third is the coming of God’s creative word to the community of Israel in the precepts that will form them as a unique people.

The author of the Gospel of John also lifts up God’s creative Word, in the person of Jesus, who is a gift to those who receive him and believe in him.  Jesus the Word here is a social being:  with God and as God he creates all things.  He comes into the world in flesh to live in creation among human beings.  He experiences rejection as well as belief.  To those who do believe in him, he gives power to become the community of the inheritors of God.

So these are four of the ways God forms us as individuals in community, as individuals into community.  One is the renewal of covenant and homecoming.  Another is the transformation of conflict.  A third is the giving of security and precepts for a unique identity.  And the fourth is the empowerment of the community to become the presence of God in the world.  So our individual belief and relationship with God is important in itself, and, its purpose is to incorporate us into a community that will act as God’s people in the world.

Now this may sound simple, but it isn’t easy.  With all the trouble in the world and our exhausting busyness, there is great temptation to cocoon and isolate ourselves with escapism and numbing out.  There are also many people, groups, corporations, and governments, including some of our own, that have vested interests in our isolation, and in the fear and sense of powerlessness that accompany it.

For instance, there is very little in the mainstream media that encourages us in our work for the kindom.  A steady diet of “If it bleeds it leads.” does not nourish us in love, power, or hope.  We have to be intentional to find the good news of God’s presence at work in the world.

There are also calls to other allegiances who claim to be sources of power.  I was at the movies last week, and an ad for an international computer corporation came on.  The computer corporation shall not actually be named, but let’s call it Corporation X.  Its ad showed happy and energetic people using the corporation’s products.  The end statement was “Corporation X empowers people to change the world.”  Now from a Christian perspective, a more accurate statement might be, “God empowers people to change the world, and then they use some of the tools sold by Corporation X to do some of the work.” It’s perhaps a subtle distinction, and, it’s a type of distinction that needs to be made more often.  Otherwise we give over our intrinsic power to act as the people of God to some other allegiance or entity with another agenda entirely.

Likewise the rhetoric of part of the current presidential debates, full of wall-building and carpet bombing, ignores the fact that at least some of the people to be walled out and carpet bombed are our sisters and brothers in the community of the Church, or at the very least are our neighbors who we are to love as ourselves.

Perhaps most challenging of all, in an individualistic culture such as ours, is to have the courage and conviction to step out of our individual concerns, out of our preoccupation with “My God”, and out of our fear of the stranger,  so that we can become truly God’s people.  Our greatest challenges are our own:  our remaining racism, our exclusion of LGBTQ persons and women from the full life of the church, our remaining consumerism instead of stewardship, our incivility toward those who disagree with us.  All these are things that keep us as a collection of individuals going in different directions, instead of being the beloved community united to assist the power and presence of God in the world.

We celebrate the coming of Christ because in him we see real assistance in the isolation of our lives.  God’s own self is a Trinity, one God in holy community, Source and Emmanuel and Spirit.  It is that God who invites us into the divine life of perichoresis, the divine life of dancing in partnership with God and with one another.  And in that dancing we are deeply loved and understood and renewed as individuals and communities, loved and understood and renewed by and because of the God who is with us.  

We also celebrate the coming of Christ because he begins with us as a baby.  Mother Teresa said that it is important to do small things with great love, and what we do in community does not have to be huge and exhausting.  The God who begins with us in baby steps will not mind if we begin our projects of love and justice the same way.  And for God to begin with us as a baby means that God trusts us.  God trusts us:  to protect, to nurture, to help grow, to bring to maturity in ourselves and our church community, and to rejoice in the presence of God-with-us, as we then embody the presence of Christ in the world.

In this new year we are invited to see beyond ourselves as individuals to see ourselves as part of the community of God’s people, and to encourage ourselves in that identity.  Where is God at work?  Where is the good news?  Where are we called to support that, or even blaze a trail?  We do not need to be afraid.  We are able to get up and be and be doing.  Because we are not alone.  The coming of Christ to one of us is the uniting in Christ of all of us in the community of God’s people, that community whose work and joy is to bring hope and new life to the life of the world.  Thanks be to God, who gives us this victory in the name of Jesus Emmanuel and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Merry Christmas!

–Rev. Victoria Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

A New Year Outlook

Sunday, December 27th, 2015

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 2:41-52

Click here to listen to the sermon only

About ten years ago, a friend of mine and I spent Saturday afternoons, winter and spring 2006, visiting members of our church.  He drove, I navigated, we sipped Diet Dr. Pepper.  We used a map.  We went to call on church members who had not yet had the opportunity to make a pledge to our capital campaign.  The building it supported was mostly up, the pledges were mostly in, but we lacked a certain percentage.  The trustees, being trustees, along with the rest of us, rightly wanted to see 100% completion and participation.  All manner of mailings, some e-mailings, pulpit appeals, and phone calling were to no avail. So, we went out in the eastern suburbs of Monroe County NY, to make some doorstep, unannounced, cold call home visits.  

I remember beautiful homes, and young families, and happy greetings, and a real willingness to listen, and a desire to give. After all, these young families would most benefit from the investment other generations were making in their future.  I also remember asking my friend and driver Bob why some of these homes, large and lovely, apparently had little or no furniture.  He could give the price of the homes, close to market, about 1/3 the cost of similar property in eastern New England.  This impressed me.  But, I asked, where is the furniture?  Well, he tried to explain, some of these families have taken out as much mortgage as they could, knowing (he raised an eye brow), knowing that the value would continue to go up, and up. It was generally understood to be the wise, prudent thing to do, though, of course, it was a matter of interpretation. They would get the furniture next year.  

The memories flooded in while we watched recently the film THE BIG SHORT.  Now I see.  Now I see what I saw but I had no full way to see what I saw or fully to interpret what I saw, almost 10 years ago. How you see depends on how you interpret what you see.  Just over the horizon from winter 2006 there was about to be a great collapse, as we all now know and ruefully remember. We are still finding our interpretative way into understanding all that happened.  I can see now, pretty clearly, what Bob I think suspected, but did not say.  Our friends were truly very ready to give, but they at that point had no means to do so.  

Interpretation matters.  Two days after Christmas, and the feast of our Lord’s birth, and one day after the feast of Stephen, and remembrance of his death as the first Christian martyr, perhaps we could pause, step back, and look, as he have now and then before, at our mode of interpretation.  Not of markets and economics today, but of truth, of faith, of Gospel, of life. We take a New Year outlook.  As we pray together in the New Year, what will be our outlook?  As Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, at least as Luke reports, what shall our own outlook toward wisdom be, not 2006, but 2016?

Errancy

To begin. Your love for Christ shapes your love of Scripture.  You love the Bible.  You love its psalmic depths.  #130 comes to mind. You love its stories and their strange turns.  Samuel comes to mind.  You love proverbial wisdom.  ‘One person sharpens another like iron sharpens iron’ comes to mind. You love its freedom, its account of the career of freedom.  The exodus comes to mind. You love its memory of Jesus.  His growing in stature today comes to mind. You love its honesty about religious life.  Galatians comes to mind.  You love its strangeness.  John comes to mind.  You love the Bible, enough to know it through and through.

You rely on the Holy Scripture to learn to speak of faith, and as a medium of truth for the practice of faith.  Around our common table today in worship, we share this reliance and this love.  The fascinating multiplicity of hearings, here, and the interplay of congregations present, absent, near, far, known, unknown, religious and unreligious, have a common ground in regard for the Scripture. A preacher descending into her automobile in Boston, after an earlier service, listens to this service to hear the interpretation of the gospel.  A homebound woman in Newton listens for the musical offerings, as in today’s duets, and for the reading of scripture.  On the other side of the globe, a student listens in, come Sunday, out of a love of Christ that embraces a love of Scripture.  Here in the Chapel nave, on the Lord’s Day, scholars and teachers and students have in common, by your love for Christ, a love for the Scripture, too.  The B I B L E, yes that,s the book for me.  In this way, we may all affirm Mr. Wesley’s motto:  homo unius libri, to be a person of one book.

But the Bible has a story, too, as James Sanders used to say.  And at points, it is errant.  Not inerrant, but errant.  It is theologically tempting for us to go on preaching as if the last 250 years of study just did not happen.  They did.  That does not mean that we should deconstruct the Bible to avoid allowing the Bible to deconstruct us, or that we should study the Bible in order to avoid allowing the Bible to study us.  In fact, after demythologizing the Bible we may need to re-mythologize the Bible too.  It is the confidence born of obedience, not some certainty born of fear that will open the Bible to us.  We need not fear truth, however it may be known.  So Luke may not have had all his geographical details straight.  John includes the woman caught in adultery, but not in its earliest manuscripts.  Actually she, poor woman, is found at the end of Luke in some texts.  Paul did not write the document from the earlier third century, 3 Corinthians. The references to slavery in the New Testament are as errant and time bound as are the references to women not speaking in church.  The references to women not speaking in church are as errant and time bound as are the references to homosexuality.  The references to homosexuality are as errant and time bound as are the multiple lists of the twelve disciples.  The various twelve listings are as errant and time bound as the variations between John and the other Gospels.

The Marsh pulpit, and others like it, are not within traditions which affirm the Scripture as the sole source of religious authority.  We do not live within a Sola Scriptura tradition.  The Bible is primary, foundational, fundamental, basic, prototypical—but not exclusively authoritative.  Today’s passage from Luke 2 is an idealized memory. of something that may or may not have happened in the way accounted.  It looks back sixty years. It is formed in the faith of the church to form the faith of the church.

If I were teaching a Sunday School class this winter I might buy the class copies of Throckmorton’s Gospel parallels and read it with them.

Equality

You love the tradition of the church as well.  Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed…John Wesley loved the church’s tradition too, enough to study it and to know it, and to seek its truth.  The central ecclesiastical tradition of his time, the tradition of apostolic succession, he termed a ‘fable’.  Likewise, we lovers of the church tradition will not be able to grasp for certainty in it, if that grasping dehumanizes others.  The Sabbath was made for the human being, not the other way around, in our tradition.  

For instance, the linkage of the gifts of heterosexuality and ministry, however traditional, falls below and falls before the Gospel of grace and freedom.  In Methodism, 2016, the church’s own tradition, the very preaching of the gospel itself, and the rendering of theological truth–well before any moral, or ethical, or societal debate—includes the full affirmation of the full humanity of gay people.  Tradition expands to make way for the gospel.  So, over time, equality triumphs over exclusion.  It is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave…

If I were convening a spring study I would have the group re-read Walter Wink’s old little pamphlet The Bible and Homosexuality for some perspective on tradition and scripture and  change.

Evolution

You love the mind, the reason.  You love the prospect of learning.  You love the life of the mind.  You love the Lord with heart and soul and mind.  A mind is a terrible thing to waste. You love the reason in the same that Charles Darwin, a good Anglican, loved the reason.  You love its capacity to see things, and to grow in wisdom and stature, as Jesus did, according to our gospel today..

A word of caution is in order.  Reason unfettered can produce hatred and holocaust.  Learning for its own sake needs virtue and piety (repeat).  More than anything else, learning, to last, must finally be rooted in loving.   Jesus grew, in Luke 2.  The more he learned, the more he taught.  He embodies inquiry for us today.  Inquiry!

The universe is 15 billion years old.  The earth is 4.5 billion years old. 500 million years ago multi-celled organisms appeared in the Cambrian explosion.  400 million years ago plants sprouted.  370 million years ago land animals emerged.  230 million years ago dinosaurs appeared (and disappeared 65 million years ago).  200,000 years ago hominids arose.  Every human being carries 60 new mutations out of 6 billion cells.  Yes, evolution through natural selection by random mutation is a reasonable hypothesis, says F Collins, father of the human genome project, and, strikingly, a person of faith.

I might have my fellowship group re-read this New Year Francis Collins, the Language of God.  He can teach us to reason together.  

It is tempting to disjoin learning and vital piety, but it is not loving to disjoin learning and vital piety.  They go together.  The God of Creation is the very God of Redemption.  Their disjunction may help us cling for a while to a kind of faux certainty.  But their conjunction is the confidence born of obedience.  In the end, falsehood has no defense and truth needs none.  Nothing human is foreign to us.

Existence

You love experience.  The gift of experience in faith is the heart of your love of Christ.  You love Christ. Like Howard Thurman loved the mystical ranges of experience, you do too.  Samuel, in looking forward, expects to learn from experience, and joyful experience at that. We know joy.  Joy seizes us.  Joy grasps us when we are busy grasping at other things.  You love what we are given morning and evening.

You love experience more than enough to examine your experience, to think about and think through what you have seen and done.

Sometimes, after a decade, looking into and upon experience, we can see things better.  Our failures teach us, both as individuals, and in community.  We learn in our experience the happiness and centrality of giving (yes, there is a year end stewardship nudge here (☺)).  We learn also that, you know, you can do too much for people sometimes.  That is part of the limit purpose of the tithe (yes, again, there is a year end notion at play here (☺)).  

You can trust your experience.  That is part of the meaning of Incarnation.  From a friend, this week, came a gift that sings love of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience, rightly interpreted, in the voice of one Cardinal John Francis Dearden of Detroit, and quoted in Pope Francis’ very recent Christmas message.  Dearden’s prayer sings out the song of incarnate love.  His is our last word today, as we take a New Year outlook, and remember that interpretation matters:

Every now and then it helps us to take a step back

and to see things from a distance.

The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is also beyond our visions.

In our lives, we manage to achieve only a small part

of the marvellous plan that is God’s work.

Nothing that we do is complete,

which is to say that the Kingdom is greater than ourselves.

No statement says everything that can be said.

No prayer completely expresses the faith.

No Creed brings perfection.

No pastoral visit solves every problem.

No programme fully accomplishes the mission of the Church.

No goal or purpose ever reaches completion.

This is what it is about:

We plant seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted,

knowing that others will watch over them.

We lay the foundations of something that will develop.

We add the yeast which will multiply our possibilities.

We cannot do everything,

yet it is liberating to begin.

This gives us the strength to do something and to do it well.

It may remain incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way.

It is an opportunity for the grace of God to enter

and to do the rest.

It may be that we will never see its completion,

but that is the difference between the master and the labourer.

We are labourers, not master builders,

servants, not the Messiah.

We are prophets of a future that does not belong to us.

Hear the gospel, you prophets of a future that does not belong to you! And, Happy New Year.

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Doubt and Faith at Christmas

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 1:39-45

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Overture

He is the Way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth. Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life. Love him in the World of the Flesh: and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy. (Auden)

There are two shades of Christmas and both are blessed.  

The search for truth and the gift of grace are both blessed.  Elisabeth and Mary; John and Jesus; the true and the good; both and all are blessed, in Luke’s Gospel, by God’s healing of the world in Christ, who is both holy and lowly.

There are two trails to Christmas.  That of doubt, and that of faith.

In this morning’s Gospel, following earlier separate scenes, the two stories come together—John and Jesus, Prophet and Pastor, Doubt and Faith, two sorts of Christmas—John soon to be out by the river, Jesus soon to be in his Father’s house.

At a recent Christmas party a soon to graduate theological student talked about returning to her home in the south central part of the country, and her impending interview before her board of ministry.  What will they ask you?  About the documentary hypothesis, or the second aorist, or the synoptic problem, or the teleological suspension of the ethical, or the art of preaching?  No, they will ask me “Why did you go to Boston?”  Her reply might be:  ‘Because at Boston University I can search for truth and affirm God’s grace, I can combine the necessity of doubt with the promise of faith’.  Hers would be a Christmas answer.  Lord I believe, help my unbelief.

Evidence?  Spiritual things?  Truth? Grace?  Doubt? Faith?

  1. Christmas Doubt

First, doubt.  One dimension of Christmas begins with the search for truth, and, therefore, with the real experience of doubt.  For today, then, a full look at violence, greed and silence.

Facts are stubborn things.  Take a hike with me, down by the river. One Christmas Sunday, late modern or post-Christian, commences at the river, let us say at the head of the Charles.  A riverfront Christmas, for which John the Baptist was given lung and voice, that perhaps of the cultural congregation, even late modern and post-Christian, listens in the dark for the truth.  On the radio, say?  

  1. Violence

A pause at the Charles.  To begin.

The world looks nothing like Christmas.  

We are so anxious and fearful of what has become of our fragile planet that we burrow into feverish work, feverish drink, feverish sex, feverish exchange—getting and spending.  No, come this Christmas Sunday, one does not see the Word made flesh fully abroad.  And lurking down deep in the psyche, and the collective unconscious is the worried fear, the prospect of single nuclear weapon, somewhere, somehow, in the wrong, violent hand.

That sort of anxiety makes even strong people inclined toward demagoguery, belittling, bullying simplicity, in the rhetoric of culture, politics, religion, and life.  That anxiety makes us forget the importance of institutions, and the health, and the well-being and the care of institutions—whether a marriage, a family, a business, a college, a company, or a country.  Process matters.  Due process matters, greatly.  Proven experience counts.  Excellent proven experience counts, greatly.  Mocking the institution one aspires to lead does real damage.  ‘A successful campaign against nihilism will have to resist nihilism itself’. (NYRB, 12/15).  It will be a shame if it takes the current generation of twenty-somethings half a lifetime to learn this.  (As apparently it has taken their parents.)  Traction in history requires institutions, and they require leadership that speaks with honest transparency, builds genial trust, and thereby waters the earth with goodwill, goodwill, goodwill (a Lukan Christmas term) in institutional form.

Or look again at the United States of America, anno domini 2015.  Ferguson, Staten Island, Charleston, Cleveland, Baltimore, Colorado Springs, San Bernardino.  Ours is an age drenched in violence.  Ours is a culture steeped in violence.  And ours is a country born in violence.  Not the violence of the first setters, only, nor the violence of the revolution, mainly.  Whence American taste for violence and its home ownership of 300,000,000 guns?  We cut our teeth on the violence of slavery.  Racism and gun violence are our tragic twins in this land.  We learned the need of violence—how?  4 million people don’t choose to stay in leg irons on their own.  They have to be kept there.  And how?  Violence.  The violence of the whip, of the lash, of the pistol, of the rifle, of the hound, of the lynching tree, and of ways of justifying, speaking of the reasonable need for, such violence.   While you never or hardly ever hear it, gun violence and racism go hand in hand, twins, the ghostly daughters of our birth as a country.  Read Faulkner or Genesis.  This violent world looks nothing like Christmas.

  1. Greed

A pause along the Esplanade, say at the Arthur Fiedler statue. To continue.  A place to honor music, the height of the invisible.  It is a good thing that Arthur is so sturdy, for the ‘invisible’ faces steady headwinds and even cross winds in our time. The pervasive materialism, endless exurban expansion, and mindless consumption of a people hurtling down a highway focused on the speedometer and blind to the road ahead, are a long way from Christmas.  From every corner we are encouraged to shop.  To buy!  But… to give?  Both would strengthen the economy, but in different ways.  One leans toward commodity and the other toward community.  It may be, one thinks, along the river, that Immanuel—the college, or the doctrine, or the hope—have gone, left for a far country.  As Vahanian said of ‘God’ 50 years ago, the symbols of faith have grown cold for the culture.  Has such a fate of symbolic anachronism now permanently infected Christmas?  Is the whole symbol set, from angels to straw and all between, become, simply, a once told tale?  We know that symbols die.  Sometimes from neglect, sometimes from abuse, sometimes from both.  It is hard to find evidence that the poor manger has much traction to shape a culture any longer.  Whither wonder, morality, generosity? Greed is a long way from Christmas.

  1. Silence

A pause at the Concert Shell.  To listen.  Here is my friend awash in grief for the tragic and inexplicable loss of a spouse.  Here is he, years later, still caught in the flow and ebb of that sorrow beyond sorrow.  It is an empty time for this concert stage, and its empty loss, and lack, is one that many know better than any other truth.  To hear the improbable predictions of Isaiah, about streams in a desert, is to this ear, just now, at the shoreline of the absurd.

When to the heart of man

Was it ever less than a treason

To go with the drift of things

And to yield with a grace to reason

And to bow and accept the end

Of a love or a season? (Frost)

And from the hurt comes doubt. Having in the churches exchanged much of our capacity in philosophical theology for a saltier but lighter mix of personal narratives and identity politics, we find ourselves scrambling a bit to respond to first level questions about evidence, about suffering, about creation, about content, about God.  Like the earliest Christians, thinkers today do not fear the charge of a-theism.  Nor should they. The search for truth, by the presence of John the Baptist, down by the river is blessed at Christmas.  Nihil humanum:  nothing human is foreign to us.

Emptiness unabated is a long way from Christmas.

Here then is one Christmas trail and tale:  a search for truth and an experience of doubt. The honesty and the courage of this account need naming:  violence, greed, silence.

(Reflexion)

Although… A pause, perhaps now at night, with the light shimmering on the Charles, to wonder…

In your doubt.  Just how sure are you?  In the moonlight, with a shimmering.  Lights and a light wind and the faint call of carolers.  And…Other?  Mystery?  Spirit?  The Luminous Numinous?  A little faith tracks the trail of every doubt, and sometimes, come Christmas, even causes us to doubt our doubt.

All along the river of doubt there is a shimmering something alongside…  Mystery.  Being.  Spirit.  All the cultured doubt of a late modern, post Christian culture, still, does not erase what is just beyond saying, knowing, and hearing.  Doubt is shadowed by faith.

  1. Christmas Faith

Second, faith. Another sort of Christmas begins with the gift of faith.  A full hearing for wonder, and care, and peace.

Your Christmas trail may be ecclesiastical and not cultural, indoors and not outdoors, by candlelight and not moonlight.

You may be a cradle Christian at Christmas, or a cradle Christmas Christian.  Then your trail would move not along the river, but along the rail.

  1. Wonder (in the Silence)

A pause at the Gospel, in church.  To think.  Now inside, not outside.  Now at the rail, not at the river.  Now with Mary and Jesus, though hearing still Elizabeth and John.

All failure, folly and horror bracketed, for the moment, there is the start of this trail in carols of the English tradition, and in candles to evoke the numinous, and in word and sacrament to mirror heaven. Every year, come Christmas Eve, as at no other time of year, there is an awareness of lasting life.  The world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder, as Chesterton never tired of saying.  It is the imagination, that quality of heart and mind so necessary to being human, which quickens again, here at the rail.  Step ahead, just a moment, as sometimes we do, to read the Gospel, moving the page itself into the heart of the church.

Wonder still appears on the candlelit faces uplifted at midnight worship.  Good deeds, selfless and real, emanate still from hearts, homes, and communities of faith.  Generosity, both of spirit and of wallet, emerges again in December.  My Jewish friend’s daughter, steady and staunch in her own faith, nonetheless just loves to go to her neighbor’s house to decorate the Christmas tree:  lights, ornaments, tinsel, all.

Now the passage read from Luke for this Sunday prepares us for the very birth of Christ.  Here is Elizabeth, the mother of the one on the river, and Mary, the mother of the one at the rail.  There are two kinds of Christmas, that of John and that of Jesus, both blessed.  One in the cold light of reason, and one in the warm heart of love.  Both are good, both needed.   Even in utero, according to this Lukan narration, John the Baptist is aware of, we might say prophetically aware of, the unborn Messiah.  But there is a palpable portent of possibility shot through all of this strange reading. We shall honor by acceptance its strange, numinous portent, pregnant with potential for the future.  The Gospel creates its own audience, in the audience of its announcement. Grace renders a sense of imagination, that quiet surrender of the self to the spirit of God.  

  1. Care (amid greed)

A pause at the lesson.  To continue.

The earlier prophecy from Micah recalled David, born in Bethlehem, and was taken by primitive Christianity as a prediction of the Christ.  The whole of the book of Micah realistically portrays the limits of human goodness.  And yet, the image of the shepherd stays with us, and stands out.  Many of our churches are over programmed and under pastored.   A shepherd leads by example.  Here is care:  in the giving of money.  Here is care:  in taking the cloak as well, and going the second mile.  Here is care:  waking in the morning with hope, and praying into the night with hope.  Here is care:  investing in what can cross the bridges of difference.  Here is care:  the ability to see one’s own hurt and suffering, to some degree, as part of a larger labor pain, the birth of the future.

  1. Peace (in a time of Violence)

A pause, too, at the Epistle, the letter to the Hebrews, and its early portent, even at Christmas, of the sorrow and struggle to come. To conclude. Suffering produces endurance.  But God, in Christ, has acted to heal and cleanse.  In faith, we have a way forward, even in the face of other ways forward that do not seem to go forward.  Every day we can live a changed life.  Peace come through peace makers.

In our own lives let us, in faith, eschew any first strikes, on the cheek, or on the character, or on the person.

In our own lives let us eschew any self-full, unilateral action that is not cognizant of circumstance.

In our own lives let us free ourselves, personally, from acting in overweening ways, in ways that use people and love things, rather than loving things and using people (Augustine).

In our own lives let us learn patiently to plan, to foresee, with forbearance, and so practice Niebuhr’s ‘spiritual discipline against resentment’.

Here is a Christmas faith.  In church, gospel, lesson and letter, we may surely affirm the gifts of faith at Christmas:  wonder in silence, care amid greed, peace in a time of violence.

(‘Reflexion’)

And yet.  Lest faith curdle to blind faith, and the gift of faith into the  wrapping of fideism, we may take the test of reason, a pinch of doubt, with us too.  ‘Test the spirits’, says the Scripture (1 Thess. 5: 22). While Luke surely means to place Jesus above John (cf. R Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 333ff.), and that without a doubt, Luke nonetheless makes full space for both kinds of Christmas.

Coda

There are two shades of Christmas.  One of Elizabeth and one of Mary, one of John and one of Jesus, one of river, and one of rail. Yours may be one tinged by faith, though full of doubt.  Yours may be one tinged by doubt, though robust in faith.  Both are blessed, both the true and the good.

We might add, though, if your Christmas is of the indoor variety, take a walk in the moonlight; and if your Christmas is of the outdoor variety, come in to the beauty of the sanctuary at night.  It takes a poet to get this middle voice, this reflexive, this nuanced announcement in the right key.  So, Auden:

He is the Way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth. Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life. Love him in the World of the Flesh: and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

A Life of Prayer

Sunday, December 6th, 2015

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 3:1-6

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Precursor

Prayer is a precursor.   Prayer is a precursor to learning, doing, and being.  The life of prayer prepares the future’s way.  Precursors have powerful influence.

A couple of weeks ago we were invited back to the Cornell community, Ithaca NY, with whom we were in ministry 35 years ago.  The church there celebrated their 100th birthday, the anniversary of a community whose preachers had included John R Mott, some future deans and presidents of various schools, the husband of Pearl Buck, a former Cornell Sage Chapel Dean, and others.  Sometimes they got saddled with inexperienced young pastors, as well.  

This community, called the Forest Home Chapel, in Ithaca, models one future route for northern and extended northern Methodism, in three dimensions.  The church is liberal, a reconciling congregation, something of a given, given its history.  The church is well led, and prizes ministerial excellence with strong preaching, now offered by the Rev. Rebecca Dolch, a preacher of the first water.  The church is low overhead—no debt, modest building, adequate manse, and voluminous volunteer activity.  Theirs is the future–escaping fundamentalism, poor un-ordained leadership, and old, creaking, massive building structure.  In fact, they are a precursor, one route, one model for what will remain in the northeast in our tradition.

After the service, about 100 of us enjoyed a meal and memories.  Jan remembered serving as an interim director of the Nursery School there, for which three mornings her husband had childcare responsibilities.  He would sometimes show up, she recalled, coming over from the parsonage next door, and asking ‘what do I do now?’

As happens, that memory triggered the following:  here in Marsh Chapel, Boston, in 2010, I received a phone call from the New York Times.  That is not a daily occurrence.  ‘Were you the minister in Ithaca in 1980?’  Who wants to know, I asked.  ‘Was there a child care program in your church?’  I referred the reporter to the response given moments before.  ‘We have a senatorial candidate, a republican in Illinois, a Cornell graduate, who claims a background in early childhood education, and when pressed identified the program in your church as his employer.  The current director looked through records and found no evidence, but gave us your name’.  I will be sure to thank her, I replied.  ‘But what did you say was the candidate’s name?’  Mark Kirk.  I could give no evidence against or for his employment there, ‘possible but not likely’ I said in response.  So my sole offering, to date, to the New York Times, is the fairly lame phrase ‘possible but not likely’ or something similar.  (☺)

This week you learned of a vote on gun control in the US Senate in which just one, just one member of Senator Kirk’s party crossed the line to vote to strengthen gun controls.  That was Senator Mark Kirk himself.  I can imagine that his choice took some courage.  In that, he is precursor.  A precursor goes ahead, and has powerful influence on the future.  Kirk is one.  Maybe that Cornell education moved him.  Maybe he did work with kids in the church basement.  Maybe he heard something, inside or outside of worship, which stayed with him.  Maybe he remembered the primary precursor to the gospel, John the Baptist.

Lukan Baptist

Dressed in camel’s hair, with a diet of locusts and honey (though Luke omits to dress and feed him as Mark so does), John the Baptist is the precursor to Jesus.  You cannot get to Christmas without Advent.  You cannot come to Bethlehem except by way of the Jordan.  You cannot celebrate grace without hearing first the prophetic voice (though it is also good to be reminded that the prophetic is a part of the gospel but not the heart of the gospel (repeat)).  Every year, right now, the Baptist, out in the dark cold miserable mud-soaked Jordan River, stops us.  He stops you.  He says the one prayerful word of the precursor, the prophetic word: ‘Prepare’.  Then he calls the whole people to prayer:  to repentance for pervasive sin; to acceptance of pardon as the way out of evil and hurt; to assurance of grace.

Prayer is what comes before the rest, like Sunday morning is meant to come before the rest (of the week).  Are you getting off on the right foot week by week?

John the Baptist would want to know.  Look carefully at what Luke says about him.  See the Lukan Baptist, different from John the Baptist in Mark.   Mark, 20 years before, begins his gospel with the Baptist.  The gospel opens, ‘the voice of one…’  Not Luke.  Luke wants John put in particular context, 20 years later.  

(We want to hear the gospel in the gospels.  Luke says something different from what he borrowed out of Mark.  That should give us confidence, as we preach, to take the gospel in hand, and apply it to our own condition, our own time, as, well, the first gospel writers all did.)

So, Luke has a history that precedes the precursor.  This history, an orderly one, tells of the conjoint mysterious births of John and Jesus.  This history, an orderly one, gives singing voice to Zechariah (whose psalm we used today) and Mary (two weeks hence).  This history, an orderly one, acknowledges the days of Caesar Augustus and Quirinius.  This history, an orderly one, honors Joseph, and paints like El Greco shepherds in the firelight of the ‘smoking cradle’ (Barth).  This history, an orderly one, makes a little space for the childhood of Jesus, in woe and weal both, circumcision, presentation, growth in wisdom, and temple teaching.  Then, only, does Luke allow the Baptist to appear.  But even here, it is the orderly history that prevails: 15 years, Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod and Philip, unpronounceable regions,  eminently forgettable tetrarchs and priesthoods (‘a six-fold synchronism’, as Bultmann wryly remarks (HST, 362)).   Luke is making sure Jesus has his feet firmly planted in history, both of secular Empire and sacred Temple and an orderly history at that.   So, for us, our engagement with history, under the influence of the Gospel of Luke, matters, counts, lasts, is lastingly real.  More on this in a moment.

Prayer as Precursor

Our year at Marsh Chapel is given over to the theme of prayer, to the life of prayer, and we have spoken about what prayer is, and is meant to be for us.  But in the crusty spirit of the prophetic Baptist here in Luke, we might also want bluntly to say what prayer is not.  Prayer is not a substitute for work.  Prayer is not magic.  Prayer is not mindless, not rote or impersonal.  Prayer is a precursor to work, which shapes the worker, and makes work personal.  Prayer has the power, the influence of the precursor, like John the Baptist, out in the cold river mud.

Our Boston University Personalist Borden Parker Bowne wrote (in 1910!) as our friend Mark Davies reminded us this month,

There is a fancy that prayer alone is the great instrument of success.  This overlooks the true nature of prayer, and also the conditional form of human progress.  In all matters which God has made to depend on human action, that is not prayer, but irreverent impertinence, which pours itself out in verbal petition while neglecting to use the means which lie in our power.  To appoint a day of fasting and prayer to ward of cholera, while allowing the streets and houses and water-supply to reek with filth and all manner of insanitary abomination, would be more like blasphemy than prayer.  A farmer, lying on his back in the shade, while his fields remain unplowed and unsown, cannot truly pray for harvest.  In all cases where our activity is demanded works is a necessary part of prayer, or rather it is the form which true prayer necessarily takes one…Heaven’s ear is deaf to easy verbal petitions.  It is not until the whole soul is engaged that we can be said to pray.  Prayer in its purest essence is found in all action toward the desired object.  It is the pouring out of the whole soul, not only in word, but in act as well, for the attainment of what we seek (Bowne, The Essence of Religion)

Prayer is not a substitute for work.

Likewise, Paul Tillich wrote (in 1960!), as our congregant Dr. Kris Kahle in New Haven Connecticut reminded us this fall,

God’s directing creativity is the answer to the question of the meaning of prayer, especially prayers of supplication and prayers of intercession.  Neither type of prayer can mean that God is expected to acquiesce in interfering with existential conditions.  Both mean that God is asked to direct the given situation toward fulfillment.  The prayers are an element in this situation, a most powerful factor if they are true prayers.  As an element in the situation a prayer is a condition of God’s directing creativity, but the form of this creativity may be the complete rejection of the manifest content of the prayer.  Nevertheless, the prayer may have been heard according to its hidden content, which is the surrender of a fragment of existence to God.  This hidden content is always decisive.  It is the element in the situation which is used by God’s directing creativity.  Every serious prayer contains power, not because of the intensity of desire expressed in it, but because of the faith the person has in God’s directing activity—a faith which transforms the existential situation (P Tillich, Systematic Theology, loc. cit.).

Prayer is not a magical contradiction of the laws of nature or the movement of history.

Likewise, three days ago in this sanctuary we celebrated the life of Professor Abner Eliezer Shimony of Boston University.  He had been both a Professor of Physics and a Professor of Philosophy.  My, oh my! The music and memories of the day reflected a life of prayer, of mindfulness, embracing both physics and metaphysics, evoked these words from and about him:

Ideas matter and there is a deep beauty in pursuing them…The sense of wonder is the basis of learning…With Thucydides we need to ‘restore the sacred olive groves’…He worked both toward a peaceful coexistence of quantum mechanics and special relativity, and toward an understanding of the deepest secrets of the universe, to enhance a sense of wonder about the world, and sensitivity to the facts of the world.  Einstein and Whithead, science and spirit.

And a sense of humor:  ‘the reasons for studying Latin are many and good—but not easy to remember’ (☺).

Prayer is not mindless.

Prayer is not a substitute for work.  Prayer is not magic.  Prayer is not mindless.  Prayer is a precursor to work, which shapes the worker, and makes the worker mindful.  Prayer has the power, the influence of the precursor, like John the Baptist, out in the cold river mud.  I ask you, seriously and respectfully:  is yours a life of prayer? Do you let the waking hour be a waking hour, a prayerful precursor to the work ahead? Do you let Sunday be Sunday, a prayerful precursor to the work ahead?  Do you let Advent be Advent, a prayerful precursor to the work ahead?

Today

It is in this spirit that Paul can write, ‘I am confident of this, that he would began a good work among you will bring it to completion’.  His words, prayerful words, are themselves precursors.   We come to church this morning drenched in sorrows, in the wake of terror east and west, Paris and California, and elsewhere.  We wonder how in the world honestly to face religious extremism and fully to stand beside our brothers and sisters of different faiths.  Some of us will gather tomorrow night at 6pm in the GSU to address just this issue.  We wonder how in the world to keep moving forward toward a public health cure for gun violence, when so little forward motion seems to occur, and the same blank stares and empty phrases follow yet another sordid, evil, awful slaughter.  Some of us will gather Wednesday evening at 7:30pm on December 9 at First Church Boston on Marlborough Street to address just this issue.   Nor are these the only issues of our time.  

In the gospel, we remain hopeful.  Real change is real hard but it happens in real time when people really work at it.  This is Paul’s commonwealth of the gospel, partnership of the gospel—weakly rendered in our NRSV as ‘sharing’.  My goodness.  ‘Sharing’  ‘Sharing’ is not the half of it.  It is Work!  Commonwealth! Partnership! Koinonia! You can if you think you can.   For example, we can move toward reduction in gun violence in our time, and this hour of sacrament and sermon, is itself a prayerful precursor to it.

I have seen change, good change, in these past few years.  I see unemployment rates now low.  I see two wars ended, with continued foreceful attention to containment abroad and protection at home (repeat last phrase).  I see the Gulf of Mexico cleaned.  I see Massachusetts style health care spreading out across the country.  I see Ebola defeated.  I see deliberation and détente with Iran.  I see civil rights for gay and lesbian people.  I see a global summit on climate change.  I see two vibrant Boston marathons since 2013, and another coming.  I see a growing awareness of the limits and perils of some newer technologies.  I see more and better conversation about race and injustice (it does matter what monuments you have on your campus plaza and lawn, and it helps to know their histories).   I see optimistic 20 year olds who just have never heard that it couldn’t be done.  It can be done.  Yes it can.  It just takes prayer as a precursor, and a prayerful human precursor or two.  Like that one lone Senator for Illinois, who got his start working in Methodist child care program—or did he?—high above Cayuga’s waters, who stepped up and stepped forward and stepped ahead.  Senator Mark Kirk did something, and as his former pastor—or was I?—I should be able to do something too.  Our engagement with history, under the influence of the Gospel of Luke, matters, counts, lasts, is lastingly real.

My grandmother in her eighties had a sign on her kitchen door.  It was her kind of prayer.  ‘Do one thing.  There.  You’ve done one thing’.  Prayer is a precursor.   Prayer is a precursor to learning, doing, and being.  The life of prayer prepares the future’s way.  Precursors have powerful influence.

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

A Lukan Horizon

Sunday, November 29th, 2015

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 21:25-36

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Jesus meets us today in the pages of St. Luke, as He will for the next twelve months. On this first Sunday of the Christian liturgical year, we turn from Mark to Luke, and see the gospel and the gospel’s world, from a Lukan horizon.

Luke was written nearly a generation later than Mark, by most estimates, Mark in or near 70, Luke in or near 90 of the common era. Traditionally ascribed to Luke the physician, its author and that of its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, is finally unknown to us. We know him only through the writing itself.

What do we find? Or what shall we find in prayerful conversation with Luke across the next year?

Luke is made up of a mixture of ingredients. First, Luke uses most of Mark. An example is our passage today, Luke 21. Like Matthew, Luke knew and repeated most of the earlier gospel of Mark. But he made changes along the way, or construed the gospel according to his own desires and emphases. This is hopeful for us, in that it is an encouragement for us to take the gospel in hand, and interpret it according to our time, location, understanding, and need. Second, Luke uses a collection of teachings, called Q, as does Matthew. An example is our Lord’s Prayer, later in the service. Luke’s version is slightly different from that in Matthew, as is his version of the beatitudes and other teachings, found in the ‘sermon on the plain’, rather than the ‘sermon on the mount’. Third, Luke makes ample use of material that is all his own, not found in Mark or elsewhere. The long chapters from Luke 8 or so through Luke 18 or so, are all his. Examples include some of your favorite parables, like the Good Samaritan, and like the lost sheep, and like the Prodigal Son, and like the Dishonest Steward. We have Luke to thank for the remembrance of these great stories. Luke brings us a unique mixture of materials, and makes his own particular use of them.

What does Luke say? This will take us the year and more to unravel. We shall do so, on step at a time, one Sunday at a time, one parable, teaching, exhortation, miracle, or, as today, one apocalyptic pronouncement at a time. Still, there are some outstanding features of the Lukan horizon, which we may simply name as we set forth. First, Luke displays a commitment to and interest in history, and orderly history at that. Both Luke and Acts are cast in a distinctive historical mode. Second, Luke employs and deploys his own theology, or theological perspective, including this emphasis upon history and the divine purpose in history. Third, Luke highlights the humanity and compassion of Jesus in a remarkable way. The Christ of St. Luke is the Christ of magnificent compassion, embodied in the humility of a birth among shepherds. The poor, women, the stranger, the injured, those in dire need all stand out in Luke, as the recipients and subjects of Jesus’ love, mercy, grace and compassion. Fourth, Luke carries an abiding interest in the church. Ephesians says that ‘through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principles and powers’. That catches the spirit of the author or the third gospel and of the Acts to follow.

Now Look again at Luke 21. It is a traditional Christian apocalyptic teaching, which Luke has faithfully transported into his gospel. It is not its mere presence, but its particular interpretation in Luke that we watch for this morning.

Jesus, Paul, the earliest church and most of the New Testament carry the common expectation that within days or years, but soon, the apocalyptic end of the world will occur. All were mistaken. Even 2 Peter, who changes the math, and makes a day equal to 1000 years, has grudgingly to wrestle with the delay, the postponement, of the first Christians’ fervent hope. Recite 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 several times and you will get a sense of what this apocalyptic hope entailed. It is early Christian mythology. (As with all myth, it carries meaning, including meaning for us. But as a world-view, as a view of history, it is not the gospel.)

It did not happen. What Jesus predicted, and Paul expected, and Mark awaited—did not happen. The end did not come. And centuries of further sparkles of expectation, from the Montanists, to the Medieval mystics, to the Millerites of upstate New York, to the Jonestown community of 1978, to the Y2K enthusiasts some years ago, did not make it so. This biblical apocalyptic may be mythologically meaningful, but it is chronologically corroded.

Further, the language and imagery of the New Testament are apocalyptic through and through. Apocalyptic is the mother tongue of Christian theology, especially of Christian hope. So our beloved Bible must be interpreted anew, to serve the present age.

Fortunately, the New Testament itself begins to do so. Some of that reassessment is beginning in our passage this morning—‘so, be alert at all times, praying ’. Some of the ethical application and communal reinterpretation of this will come in later verses: you have no idea if or when the end will come so, in scout fashion, be prepared. But most of the courageous imagination in this regard is found later still, in the Gospel of John.

Luke knows the tradition of apocalyptic teaching from Mark 13, and makes space for it here. But he turns apocalyptic into action. He puts eschatology to work in the service of ethics. Its import, all this fiery symbolism, language and imagery, is in the last verse, ‘be alert at all times, praying’. The life of faith is the life of developing, expanding, creative responsibility, of responsibility taken. Action, not apocalypse. Ethics, not eschatology. Here, Luke’s own engagement in history will help us.

Stacy Schiff wrote eloquently, recently, about the Salem witch trials, but ended with a warning like that of Luke:

We too have been known to prefer plot to truth; to deny the evidence before us in favor of ideas behind us; to do insane things in the name of reason; to take the satisfying step from the righteous to the self-righteous; to drown our private guilts in a public well; to indulge in a little delusion. (NYRB, 12/3/15, p.23)

Of course, we are not free to avoid our responsibility to the environment, with the excuse that the Lord may return in a generation or two anyway, and who needs gasoline in the rapture? Nor are not free to avoid our responsibility to seek a common global peace, cognizant of the hard won insights of pacifism and just war theory both, on the bet that time is running out for the late great planet earth.

We are not free to project our anxieties about the dilemmas of the current age—out onto a far-off apocalyptic falsehood, in order to avoid what we of course have to do in every other sphere of life: negotiate, compromise, discuss, trade, and muddle through (repeat).

Here is our freedom. Pray daily for the hope of the world. Think creatively about the hope of the world. Act specifically, week by week, in communion with a reliable hope.

One of my heroes in life and work is Ernest Fremont Tittle. Dr. Christopher Evans of Boston University wrote his PhD dissertation about Tittle. A close friend of mine, now deceased, was the husband of Tittle’s long time secretary. Robert Moats Miller wrote his biography (How Shall They Hear Without a Preacher?). Tittle preached in Chicago (First Church Evanston), during the depression and the Second World War. He died in his early sixties, at his desk, while working on a commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Tittle was arguably the greatest Methodist preacher of his time, a traditional Protestant and an unwavering champion of social justice. Since we are following Luke in worship this year to come, Tittle and his own comments upon the third Gospel have been much on my mind. For the record, and as may be interesting to you, I excerpt a passages from that commentary, a typically homiletical paragraph about persistence (Luke 18:1-8):

There is a special need for persistence in prayer when the object sought is the redressing of social wrongs. God will see justice done if the human instruments of his justice to not give way to weariness, impatience, or discouragement, but persevere in prayer and labor for the improvement of world conditions. Here we can learn from the scientist. Medical research is a prayer for the relief of suffering, the abolition of disease, the conservation of life—a prayer in which the scientist perseveres in the face of whatever odds, whatever darkness and delay. More especially we can learn from great religious leaders like Luther, Wesley, Wilberforce, and Shaftsbury, who year upon year prayed and fought for the causes to which they dedicated their lives. The need for persistence in prayer arises not only from the intransigence of the oppressor, but also from the immaturity and imperfection of the would-be reformer. We have a lot to learn and much in ourselves to overcome before we can be used of God as instruments of his justice. Recognizing this, Gandhi spent hours each day in prayer and meditation, and maintained a weekly day of silence. 

I find it somehow heartening to hear, across the decades, the strong voices of Tittle and others who have walked many of the same paths we now walk. Today we face serious global challenges to peace and justice. May the very difficulties inherent in these challenges cause us to develop the moral fiber and spiritual resilience of our brother from Evanston and so many others like him.

Today our apocalyptic gospel from Luke 21, a fading late 1st century prediction of the end of time, no longer occupies, twenty centuries later, the kind of literal centrality for Christian teaching, which it did in the year 90. Even then, by Luke’s time, apocalyptic was waning. The church, beginning with the church’s formative influence on the New Testament, converted apocalyptic eschatology into ethical exhortation. Portents and predictions of wars and rumors of wars became, in the main, as they are today, words of caution and preparation, and warning. ‘Be alert…’. Be prepared. And on that basis this morning we shall render, interpret Luke 21.

Plan for the worst. Hope for the best. Then do your most. And leave all the rest.

Be alert. Not all tragedy befalls someone else. Not all inexplicable, hurtful, senseless accident happens to other families. Not all fire burns in the next town down the line. Into each life a little rain, and more than a little rain, does fall. If every heart has secret sorrows, which every heart does, then every home harbors potential hurt, as every home does.

Two weeks ago a small gathering of undergraduate students and others considered the tragedy in Paris, and other similarly awful events, which continue to this weekend. One question was how the events of our time compare to experience and events of years and decades past. ‘Has it always been like this?’ one asked. It was a faithful question, a good and mature and faithful question, to which the various responses from ‘yes’ to ‘no’ were given.

In this student group, there emerged an ongoing sense of responsibility, a longing to take some responsibility for the shape of the future: We all have some responsibility here. You and I have responsibility. You and I have responsibility in your time and in our way to strive for the things that make for peace. You and I can make a difference. We can do so by taking the initiative to learn something about a religion or religious perspective other than our own, as we have often emphasized from this pulpit. We can do so, gazing out from the Lukan horizon, by making our own efforts to help those in need. By keeping healthy balances in life. The teaching of faith is in part an effort to help us keep things in balance. There is a point to the cultural emphases of this weekend, of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Football Sunday and Cyber Monday. But these alone will not allow us to make and keep human life human. For this gratitude will need to inspire generosity. There is a broad, deep generosity across this land. There is. Yet it takes the continuous reminder of others’ need, and our responsibility, to bring the latent to life, to make it patent and to make it potent. St. Luke, and his gospel of the compassionate Christ, encourage us so. The gathering of the church encourages us. The prayers and the hymns of the church encourage us. The teaching of the faith of the church encourages us.

D Bonhoeffer: Religion is only a garment of Christianity. When religion disappears what remains is Christ himself, in all his immediacy: In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion but something quite different, really the Lord of the world (NYRB, 12/3/15)

So let us look out from the Lukan horizon. Let us prepare ourselves spiritually for the unforeseen future. Let us be alert. Let us meet violence with patient justice. We can learn to be responsive not reactive, that is to seek patient justice. Let us inculcate in ourselves and others ‘a spiritual discipline against resentment’. Let us learn the arts of disciplined endurance. I think at some low level of our collective psyche we are pushing toward this. Hence the increase in jogging, in running, in cycling, in all forms of physical endurance. At some bone level our bodies are telling us to be prepared for a long twilight struggle. Let us hold fast to he lasting commitments we have to freedom, peace, justice, and love. As Luke remembered his apocalyptic inheritance, let us remember our full religious inheritance, in the voices of those who can encourage, admonish, and advise us. That is, let us be alert at all times, praying that we may have the strength to stand before the Son of Man.

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

A Thanksgiving Prayer

Sunday, November 22nd, 2015

Click here to listen to the full service

Matthew 6:25-33

Click here to listen to the sermon only

World Walk

One of our contemporary journalists has decided to leave behind his usual round of assignments, and to walk around the world.

We remember Travels with Charlie, John Steinbeck’s drive across America with his pet dog.  You may remember a similar, more post-modern drive across the outback of America by William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways.  Another such volume a few years ago was A Walk Across America, by Peter Jenkins.

But this fellow, Paul Salopek, is walking around the world.  He has been at it for a couple of years already.

The television camera and crew caught up with him in Eastern Europe.  He has been through four pairs of shoes.  He carries very little in his backpack:  a change of clothes and a computer.  He has some traveling buddies, part guide, part protector, part friend.  He asks people in various towns to let him stay with them.  And they do.  Then he interviews them, doing a video interview once a month.

One thing he said really struck me.  The world is a very hospitable place.  With only a few exceptions, this world is a very hospitable place.  People receive, welcome and offer you hospitality.  The world is hospitable.  Paul Salopek began walking I believe in January of 2013.  His irenic voice has a faint but real resonance, Thanksgiving 2015, as we are immersed in reports of violence around the globe.  This Sunday each year we remember to be thankful.

Being Mindful

Are we mindful of sources of gratitude?

We are not always as thoughtful as we could be, not as mindful as we should be…

Then let us be thoughtful this Thanksgiving.

Let us be mindful of the goodness of God, as sung in the 126th Psalm…

Let us be thoughtful this Thanksgiving.

Let us be mindful of the blessings of God, as sung in the beatitudes…

Let us be thoughtful this Thanksgiving.

Let us be mindful of friendship, as was our friend Max Coots…

“Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

For children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are….

For generous friends with hearts and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we’ve had them;

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the other, plain as potatoes and as good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels Sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem Artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;

For all these we give thanks.”

by Reverend Max Coots

The Good Earth

Our lessons from ancient Scripture surround us with thanksgiving.  The prophet Joel attributes directly to the Lord, in a way we might not in our time, both the weal and woe of natural cycles.  Yet his spirit of thanksgiving could not be more evident, as he acclaims gratitude for the good that is given, in pasture and tree and vineyard.  Even those of us dwelling mostly in an urban setting can from this autumn—warm, mostly; dry, mostly; pleasant, mostly—receive such a sense of blessing and so a sense of gratitude.  Our psalm, very directly, also recalls a dreamlike time of plenitude.  Seed-time gives way to harvest, as tears give way to shouts and joy. The long months of hidden growth, of change and development under the earth, are a firm reminder to those who use this psalm that the future will look different from the past, and from the present.  Every autumn, every harvest season, we are offered such a reminder.  Our epistle lesson in 1 Timothy turns from nature to history, from harvest to governance.  As elsewhere in the New Testament, we find here an unsurprising thanksgiving for order.  In a prayer recently, we heard the petition that we might serve God ‘with a quiet mind’.  Not all order is godly, especially when purchased with the counterfeit currency of oppression and injustice.  But Timothy has a point, too.  A quiet and peaceable life itself requires order, and when we have such, we are right to give thanks.   Especially in the later New Testament writings there is preserved for us a mature recognition of the value in things done ‘decently and in order’.  But it is our Gospel, today, that shines most clearly with gratitude, a beatitudinal thanksgiving prayer itself.  Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given unto you. The body.  Birds of the air. Lilies of the field.  Reminders of what Marilyn Robinson might call ‘the givenness of things’.  Friday night our Inner Strength Gospel choir, fed earlier by the loving care of Marsh Chapel members Cecilia, Sandra, Jerry, Carolyn, Victoria, and Melvena, gave a compelling witness, in the heart of a week of turmoil, to thanksgiving, grateful praise.

Let us be mindful of the good earth, of the fruits of harvest, of the fruits of years of labor and love, as one (Carol Zahm) remembered in the figure of her friend:

Sitting by my window—looking out at the field

This chair has been such a comfort for so many years

Rocking—rocking

All the children were comforted in this chair

All grown and gone now

Babies—growing year after year

‘Til they could go to the field to help

The fields—so green in the spring

Then the plough broke it up into beautiful brown earth

Worked over and over

Until the seeds had a wonderful bed in which to grow

Week after week growing

And then harvest.

We all went to the field for the harvest.

Sunrise to sunset

Day after day

Finished at last

Ready for winter

Now looking across the field at beautiful virgin snow

Like watching a baby sleep.  So peaceful.

Happy for the quiet.

Anxious for the awakening

Start again

Sitting by my window

Rocking Rocking

The Age of Violence

Her rocking, the rhythm of her remembrance, along the brown earth, seems a world away from our world today.

We have been this past week through a very dark patch.   The torrent of images from Paris, and elsewhere, threatens so to inundate as to overwhelm, and then to drown.

Under the aspect of thanksgiving, let us pause for a moment to collect our thoughts, to gird ourselves in faithful cautions.

We will want to be careful to remember that individual choices, to kill say, or to heal, say, are real, they matter, and they count, in the long run.  Some one chose to kill in Paris.  The bombs were not set by systems, or structures, but by men and women of flesh and bone.

We will want to be clear that for all the structural, systemic and acculturated sources of violence—how potent they are—it is nonetheless an irretrievable, and irremediable, individual choice, to take another’s life, and to take another’s innocent life.

We will want to be somber and sober to remember that God gives the human being a rooted, daily freedom, but does not then suddenly intervene to erase that freedom, however perversely, however violently, however despicably that freedom is used.

We will want to stand up, sit up, and take notice that liberty is only of any value within the constraints of security to enjoy it; and that security is only of any value as a basis for the enjoyment of liberty itself.

As people of faith we cannot in sloth afford to be naïve, refusing the dominical wisdom of serpents to hide underneath a false innocence of doves, when facing hatred, religious terrorism, and nihilistic venom.   Protection for the lamb requires resistance to the wolf, before either determines to lie down with the other.

We do not want to pray, preach, sing or proffer a kind of cheap grace that speaks lightly of forgiveness for the murderer, the terrorist, the sadistic extremist.  The utter realism of the Bible, on the one hand, and our brutal experience across many centuries, on the other hand, forbid it.  Those of us who heard the explosions on Boylston Street in 2013 empathize in a particular way with Paris 2015.

In helping one another, and our children, as one friend has said, we can at least remind them that ‘they are safe, and it is OK to feel sad about what has happened to others’, and we can continue to support and protect our neighbors and friends of all manner of different traditions, religious and secular alike.  With a soulful abandon, with a Parisian panache, going forward, we can go forward as a ‘flaneur’ of old, to saunter, to wander, to stroll, to make our own the streets and boulevards of life.

Howard Thurman Gives Thanks

So let us be mindful this Thanksgiving, as was Howard Thurman, who was a hundred years head of his time fifty years ago.  His poem:

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood,

The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives

Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies

And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;

The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day

 

I finger one by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:

The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;

The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I

Feared the step before me in darkness;

The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest

And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;

The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open

Page when my decision hung in the balance.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:

The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,

Without whom my own life would have no meaning;

The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;

The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp

And whose words would only find fulfillment

In the years which they would never see;

The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,

The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;

The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,

Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;

The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream

Could inspire and God could command.

For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

 

I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment

To which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:

The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,

My desires, my gifts;

The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence

That I have never done my best, I have never dared

To reach for the highest;

The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind

Will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the

inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the

children of God as the waters cover the sea.

All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,

I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,

Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.

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

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

The Bach Experience

Saturday, November 14th, 2015

Click here to listen to the full service

Mark 13:1-8

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Dr. Neville

Dr. Jarrett, Bach’s cantata, “Bleib bei uns,” or “Stay with us,” worries a very old theme, the need for light.  It is hard to think of a time when the troubles call for light more than now.  The incomprehensible violence, the tragic deaths of innocents, the rage that knows no containment, of the Paris terrorist attacks has cast the world in darkness.  They were acts of war by a regime that does not distinguish its politics from religion, though by no means are those acts of war condoned by other Muslim regimes.  Will France of necessity declare war on the Islamic State?  How can that war be fought if the Islamic State soldiers live among people whom they have conquered?  Will NATO go to the aid of France?  Will the US? How can our Middle Eastern neighbors in Europe and the US not be under suspicion? Will such suspicion turn friends into enemies?  These are political and moral problems.  But the depths of the troubles press against the limits of our very being and so these are religious problems, for all sides, including us.  Where is the light in these increasingly dark times?

The metaphor of light arises on the first page of the Bible, as the very first thing God says: “Let there be light.” And there was light.  This implies that darkness is the primordial, the aboriginal, situation.  The narrative also implies that prior to speaking, God is just part of the darkness.  Presumably God could have eliminated the darkness altogether, but instead arranged the light and darkness in the alternation of day and night.  So darkness is always with us or just around the corner.

In biblical times there was much debate among both Jews and Christians over whether God and God’s speech are one thing or two.  On the one hand, in the human analogy we ordinarily say that a speaker and the speaker’s speech are one; a human being is an agent or actor and speaking is one kind of acting.  Perhaps we can conceive of God on the analogy of such an agent, existing in some sense in the darkness before light as an agent ready and able to speak, but just not yet.  The difficulty with this analogy is that the creation of the world, beginning with light distinguished from darkness, is such a vast change that it is difficult to think of God as an agent at all without some equally primordial world to work on.  God is radically changed by becoming a speaking God whose first words create light.

On the other hand, many people have allowed that there are two things, God not speaking prior to creation, and the divine Word that comes into being as God speaks and in fact structures the whole of creation.  This view was elaborated in the sayings of Lady Wisdom in the book of Proverbs, who affirmed that she was present with God at the creation but complained that people did not pay enough attention to her and did not live in the light of God’s creative Word, which had moral connotations.  The Prologue to the Gospel of John lays this out in a familiar way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  (John 1:1-5)  According to John, Jesus was the incarnation of the original divine Word spoken by God in creation and the condition for all things created, a Word characterized as light.  The Word of God came into being as God spoke it in creation; it was phrased for human beings in the Sinai covenant, though too many people rejected it; it was present in common sense as Lady Wisdom, but too many people ignored it. So then God caused this Word to become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.  This is the foundation of John’s theology, and it generally won the day in Christian theology overall.  To say that Jesus is the Light of the World, in the sense Bach’s libretto meant it, is to say that he is the embodiment of the divine Word in creation that begins by saying “Let there be light.”

Dr. Jarrett, Bach seems to buy into this identification of Jesus with the Light of creation, although in our cantata there still seems to be a troubling darkness for which the Light of Christ needs yet to cover.  Is this right?

Dr. Jarrett

The second in our series of Easter cantatas is “Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden” – ‘Stay with us, for evening comes.’ Scored for choirs of oboes, strings, and voices, Bleib bei uns draws both title and subject from the 24th Chapter of Luke in which Jesus appears to a group of disciples on the road to Emmaus.

As we have come to expect from Bach, the full range of human experience and emotion is everywhere explored and considered. And, as much as Bach acknowledges human frailty, the doubt of our conviction, and the daily crisis of faith, he provides clear paths for musical and theological reconciliation. Consider the Bach passion settings – in particular, the St Matthew Passion which we perform later this year in February – Bach provides an astonishingly accurate mirror of our human circumstance. He knows how each day, we become Judas, or a Peter, or a Pilate. In today’s cantata, we connect instantly with the hapless disciples who encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Stricken with grief that their leader has been tragically cut down in the events just days before in Jerusalem, their eyes remain blind to the true identity of Jesus until he breaks bread with them – a theological reminder of Christ’s presence in the sacrament.

But references to the Luke 24 story remain allegorical in Bach’s 1725 cantata for the second day of Easter. Here, Bach focuses on the sadness, fear, and even anxiety at the loss of Jesus. In a sense, Bach connects us to the end of the John Passion as Jesus has been laid to rest in the tomb. With sarabande rhythms and a melancholy C Minor, the final chorus ‘Ruht wohl’ lays an elegiac garland on the heavy tomb stone. In cantata 6, the same C Minor music reveals the crisis of loss with low pulsing string parts, all of which yields to a frenetic fugue depicting both the disarray of the Jesus movement, but also our growing fear as darkness encloses.

The progression of arias begins with a courtly petition for Christ to stay longer. With alto oboe and alto singer, the entreaty is marked by both an upward ascent in the vocal line to accompany the text ‘highly praised’ and descending whole-tones to depict the encroaching darkness.

The central aria is a chorale setting, reminding us that Word and Sacrament are, indeed, the light. And the final aria, scored for tenor and strings, reminds us that the image of Christ and his passion are the surest way to avoid the pathways of sin.

The theology, of course, is that even though Jesus ascends to heaven, having fulfilled the prophesy, we are shored up by the Holy Spirit, and the promise of Jesus’s return. But the challenge of daily faith is very difficult without the true presence of Jesus. How will we continue? How can we remain Christ-like in our living without his daily presence? The answer is the renewal, affirmation, and cleansing purity of word and table, table and word.

Though we perform an Easter cantata today, the extraordinary need for the light of Christ to dispel the gloom and shroud of sin, calls us to an advent penitence. In the timeless words of the Psalmist: Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.

Dr. Neville

Yet we seem to have little light for our path these days.  This is why it is so important continually to advert to those things that bear the light, even in dark times.  The sacrament of the table habituates us to gratitude and hope, even when we don’t pay it much attention.  The Word in scripture, in preaching, and of course in the founding structure of the world solicits our attention to the important things even when it is obscurely understood, mumbled, and apparently incoherent.  What are the important things in a crisis riding on blind terrorism?  To remember that our first thought about enemies is that they need to be loved by us.  To be kind always, which includes sharing the grief of those under attack.  To contain rage with disciplined moderation.  To insist, against all our darkened passions, that moral and religious judgment belongs only to God.  To understand that what little light we have allows us only fallible plans and purposes in matters of war and peace.  To wait in hope for the joy that comes in the morning when the light of creation dawns again.  Amen.

–Rev. Dr. Robert Neville, Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology, Boston University

–Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music, Marsh Chapel

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.