The sermon text is unavailable at this time.
~Ms. Liz Douglass, Chapel Associate
Robert McAfee Brown
One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism…
It is hard if not impossible for many of us, who studied at the feet of Professor Robert McAfee Brown, to hear these words spoken with anything other than his own excitement, spirit, and love.
Over time you will sift out for yourselves, at whatever age, the teachers who have not only informed but have formed you. Information is good. Transformation is really good. In that spirit it is hard to hear Ephesians 4 and to face the fact that our teacher Robert McAfee Brown is not here any longer to recite the passage.
We washed up on the venerable shore of Union Theological Seminary in the autumn of 1976, there to stay for the better part of three years. Dr. Brown came and left in the same time period, three short years. He was a Union man. He said, often, ‘you can always tell the Union people’. He meant by that the emphasis in life not only on a deep personal faith but also on an active social involvement. We here would quote Mr. Wesley, ‘there is no holiness save social holiness’, and add, ‘you can always tell the Boston people’.
President Shriver somehow convinced the Browns, Bob and Sydney, to come back from the sunny west coast to their alma mater, Union, where 2o years earlier they had come of age with Tillich, Niebuhr, Knox, Terrien, Heschel, Fosdick, Steimle, Scherer and all. Perhaps they felt they owed it to their forebears. The match lasted only briefly, but for those of us there in the same brevity, it was a brief shining moment. A transformational moment
The first Christmas, in what was to become a series of jovial parties, Robert McAfee Brown brought a stack of telegrams sent ostensibly from the North Pole. They played on ‘Claus’, one being a commendation of Union for affirming the ongoing ‘claus struggle’—workers of the world unite.
One spring he preached at the wedding of friends in James chapel, citing Jeremiah and ‘the old paths’. Strikingly, for that setting and those days, and much to my appreciation, he warned the couple that many things they could share with others, but not the most intimate things–‘dining room but not bedroom’ was the way he put it. I can hear the sermon as if it were given this morning.
The next autumn he invited about 10 couples to have dinner with him and his wife Sydney in their apartment along Riverside Drive. The Browns had invited also as their guest a relatively young Jewish scholar, recently connected to Boston University, but living and working also in New York. Brown was to provide later a new and moving introduction to a short book many of us have used and reused in teaching over decades. The book: NIGHT. The scholar: Elie Wiesel.
You see how information pales before transformation, how life stands out from work, how hospitality invades ingenuity. You see all too easily what homiletically the sermon is up to. You are, or will be, many of you, teachers and preachers still in 2060, but remembering perhaps the influence of Brown, born in 1920. Kierkegaard was right about the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. Mark that. We want to connect you, a generation behind us, with others, a generation ahead. The past is not dead, it is not even past.
Robert McAfee Brown is a model for many because he was an unapologetic generalist, in the forest of specialists. For him the fun of the university is the universal part. Oh, he had many specialties, over the year: theology, church history, world religions, liberation theologies, and others.
But Brown was a model because he continued to evolve, change and grow year in and out, decade by decade. He would celebrate the life of this University if he were here. He would attend the annual honored University Lecture, participate in the University Faculty, celebrate at University Commencement, Baccalaureate, Matriculation, attend University Chapel worship on Sunday, and read BU Today, day by day.
I see him walking the quadrangle. I peer at him in the refectory. I hand him in memory a book he has requested from the library stacks. I admire still their happy marriage, which lit and warmed and brightened just by manner of being, happy. I rue the lasting awfulness of death that takes such a life out of life–at least this life. I am grateful for the wealth of teachers and teaching I was given, whose full merit I could not appreciate, and whose full measure, I have not taken even to this day.
His wife Sydney Thomson Brown wrote: “Grounded in the traditional, the traditional never contained him.” (Memoir, 121).
The Ecumenical Revolution
At last, in the final year, there was a place in a class with Professor Brown. It was titled for one of his other specialties, and one of his books, THE ECUMENICAL REVOLUTION. Brown had been a protestant observer, in some ways THE protestant observer, at Vatican II. For the rest of his life, he exuded the spirit and theme of that remarkable Council: aggiornamento.
Now, Boston. Over the last several months we have faithfully, culturally remembered other anniversaries: I Have a Dream, the Civil War, the Gettysburg Address, the death of JFK, and even this week the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. What have we remembered about Vatican II? James Carroll did write a compelling column in the fall, and a few others have done similar things. But in the main? We have missed the anniversary.
A thunderous silence somehow has hidden, this year, a great anniversary. A celebration that should have already begun. A festival! Yet, I have not heard or read a single word of it. Vatican II? Of this celebration, I hear nothing. Somebody needs to be throwing a party, a thirty year birthday party, a festival! So, rather than curse the media darkness–a not unenjoyable pastime–I today light one candle, one birthday candle.
One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism…
These years mark the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, 1962-1965. In the fall of 1965, Pope John the 23rd’s great three year meeting came to an end. So much went off-track in the 1960′s that we sometimes throw out the baby with the bath water in our generational sifting. We forget people and moments of genuine courage.
One Lord, One faith, One baptism…
Pope John 23, that happy, rotund, gracious, thankful Italian pastor, had an inspiration late one night in 1959. From the corners of the earth, he would gather church leaders, including non-catholics, to meditate on Paul’s teaching about “the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace”. The Council opened in the autumn 1962 and ended in the autumn 1965. The Bishop of Rome felt that the time had come for “aggiornamento”. A renewal. An updating. Change. Times were changing, and the church, he felt, would need to change with them. And yes, my teacher, Robert McAfee Brown, a Presbyterian, attended and wrote the best available summary of the council, The Ecumenical Revolution.
Venerable, conserving, religious, beloved institutions can change to serve the present age. If you wonder whether anyone, anyway can ever bring renewal, updating…change (ooh…) then I see this birthday candle lit today. We remember R. M. Brown’s stories about John 23 and recall that fifty years ago a then 700 million member venerable, conservative, religious, beloved church—threw the windows open!
One Lord, One faith, One Baptism. One God and Creator of us all who is above all and through all and in all!
Aggiornamento–renewal, updating, change–can even come to big institutions, even churches, with the right leadership.
John 23 championed principles of change: constant reformation, study of the Bible, collegiality, religious freedom, the role of the laity, diversity, ecumenism, dialogue, and mission.
Here is the good news, from Ephesians, and from the portly Bishop of Rome, 1964: the church can change, and in so doing, can gain its life by losing it.
The pronouncement of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the lasting ultimate victory of substance over form!
After all, Ephesians 4: 1-7 was written by a student of St. Paul, as the early church was moving from diversity to unity, and finding its way toward an ecumenical shape, at the end of the first century.
I’m waiting for an invitation from somebody to attend a party! I hear nothing. As Gabriel Vahanian said at the time of those courageous council leaders, “the Catholics have become the real Protestants today.”
Three applications—serve, listen, change.
First. With all Christians, we serve one Lord. Aggiornamento today should mean for us, the freedom to serve.
An old documentary film depicts Mother Teresa visiting the tenderloin, red-light district of San Francisco. Teresa and three other Sisters of Mercy are shown touring one of the houses in this area, which they have bought to use as a haven for battered women. The contractor, who has recently renovated the beautiful 19th century great house, proudly guides the Saint of Calcutta through American opulence. He shows her the great hall, the carpeted rooms, the fine draperies, the posted beds, the ample lighting, the mirrors. He hopes she will admire the repairs to the porcelain in the baths. He has donated some of his labor and is clearly honored to be with this great woman. During the tour, Teresa says nothing, jotting a few notes.
As they return to the front door, the contractor asks Mother Teresa whether she will need anything else. The film focuses on her face, as she gives a quiet response. She thanks him for his work. She compliments the beauty of the house. She expresses admiration for such finery. Then she says: “the mattresses can stay. Everything else must go: the drapes, the mirrors, the beds, everything.” The contractor takes notes to undo his handy work, but cannot resist asking the saint at the end: “Mother, Why?” “Because, we are here for people. We cannot let any distraction interfere with our connection to these for whom Christ died. What matters is their healing, their life. We must not let anything get between us. We’ll keep the mattresses.”
Pope John Paul II once said: “You need courage to follow Christ…especially when you recognize that so much of our dominant culture is a culture of flight from God…” And Pope Francis: ‘who am I to judge?’
Paul Baumann: “In the emerging struggle against the spiritually stultifying effects of technological society, Protestants and Catholics need to join forces.”
Service can unite where doctrine divides. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Let your righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.
Second, with all Christians we hold one faith. Aggiornamento today should mean for us the freedom to listen to others’ journeys.
One summer we shared a late Sunday dinner, with two very close friends, children of Vatican II, Catholics from the north country. It was a good dinner. Fish, potatoes, sunset, candles, and the quiet rosy warmth of friendship. When dusk comes, what do you have anyway, but your faith and your friends? Over dessert, we talked religion, which often we do. Coffee and dessert came, but the real end of the conversation eluded us. I wanted to know what worship meant for my friend. It was important to me, and maybe for that reason, I at last could hear her response. I had entered that prized moment when one suspends disbelief. What of the mass, the weekly eucharist, the liturgy? “I just feel so thankful”, she said. “I go to communion and I just feel so thankful.” In a quiet voice, with a full heart, she spoke God’s truth.
What a joy to see windows opened, and saving renewal occur. We know this well on a personal level, and hear it in each others’ stories.
In therapy, a man has the hurt of 20 years exposed to the healing light of acceptance. A clean wind blows upon his heart.
In surgery, a woman has the disease of a decade removed through the light of skilled hands. A clean wind blows upon her body.
In work, a man has the opportunity to fail, and does fail, and has his real calling suddenly exposed through the light of grace. A clean wind blows upon his life.
In marriage, a couple finally faces the truth: this is not going to work without some change. The anger of so many fitful nights is exposed. A clean wind blows upon their future.
Aggiornamento is real hard. And real good.
In fact, this year, our musicians are leading us home. Piece by piece they are presenting the Bach B Minor Mass. John Eliot Gardiner’s new book on Bach ‘like other biographers, ponders whether the work is Lutheran or Catholic…If Bach had lived longer it is likely that he would have created a definitive fair copy of the Mass…There he might have confirmed the Catholic nature of the whole…Bach’s music sets in order what life cannot’ (G Stauffer, NYRB, 2/20/14, 25).
Third, with all Christians we share one Baptism. Aggiornamento for us should mean the freedom to change our minds.
After fifty years, I think the church of John the 23rd still has some things to teach us all, especially bout Christ transforming culture–that is Augustine of Hippo. About feeling thankful. About the physical body, and respect for the body. About the Body of Christ, the church. About natural and moral law.
And so I light a birthday candle today. I am so thankful that I grew up in a time of aggiornamento–renewal, updating, change.
So I was advised by Raymond Brown, S.J., for eleven years was served by a Roman Catholic secretary, have shared countless weddings and funerals, enjoy the opportunity to teach, still, in a Jesuit school, am grateful for BU Professor Jay Corrin’s new book on liberal English Catholics in the 1960’s, and enjoy the fellowship of many traditions in the Boston Ministers’ Club. Without the Catholics in my life I would have been much less of a Protestant!
You know, life is a smorgasbord, and some of us are going hungry. I mean, others, different others, can teach us, show us, and help us. But we have to have the courage to think again, think twice, and change the mind.
I think of those who have given up their churches for the sake of the larger church. The leaders in Canada in 1925 who gave up the name Methodist and became part of the United Church. The leaders of the EUB in this country who gave up their name and history to become part of the United Methodist church. I remember my dean and friend, playfully asking, in one letter: “Is God a Methodist?” Maybe if we are really thankful for what counts we will become freer about what counts a little less. We may be able to move out of our religious families of origin with a little more ease.
“New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth, one must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.”
We have a number of listeners to our broadcast in Albany, NY. The downtown churches there, some five of them or so, share the challenges of urban ministry, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational, Baptist. Older buildings, smaller congregations, aging roofing, uncertain boilers, many empty pews. Twice each summer, though, and three times again during the year, all five come together in one sanctuary: the place is full, the hymns are sung well, the fellowship is warm. You wonder whether what they are doing now and then might well be done every week, and not just in Albany?
One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.
Let our prayer be that of Thomas Aquinas:
Give us, O Lord,
steadfast hearts which no unworthy thought can drag downward
unconquered hearts, which no unworthy purpose can wear out
upright hearts, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside
Bestow upon us also, O Lord our God,
Understanding to know you
Diligence to seek you
Wisdom to find you
And a faithfulness that will finally embrace you
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(St. Thomas Aquinas)
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
John Wesley taught his poor bands of early Methodists the effectiveness of prudent means of grace, ways by which to receive the freedom, love and faithfulness of God. By precept and example he taught fasting, abstaining from food Tuesdays and Fridays—he exercised the body, mens sana in corpore sano. By precept and example he taught the full study of Scripture, truly trying to live as homo unius libri, a person of one book. By precept and example he applauded Christian conference, ordinary conversation if engaged with heart and mind. By precept and example he commended the sacraments of baptism and the lord’s supper, not endlessly quibbling about their theological nor the proper modes of celebration: use them, use them, use them, he exhorted. By precept and example he coveted prayer, the sitting in silence before God. You struggle and stumble, it may be, do to lack of nourishment, unintended abstinence from grace in exercise, study, sacrament, talk, and prayer. Find meaning this winter in the means of grace!
Fasting is a way to discipline the body. Many of you do so through regular exercise. (Having been caused to stand for 7 minutes for the gospel as ung, you may feel your work today is done!) Several here will run the marathon April 21. Some here will walk in the winter along the river. A few here will walk or take the T this afternoon to the Common to skate at 1pm, our annual Ground Hog Day observance. Yesterday here at Marsh Chapel several dozen students exercised their voice in all day choir practice. Yesterday here at Marsh Chapel several dozen other students exercised their minds in study retreat on the theme ‘the blueprint of life’. Let us find grace this winter in exercise.
Scripture is holy especially when pursued in holiness. What a loss not to fall in love with Scripture, not to befriend Scripture, not to be guided by Scripture! Read in college Plato, Shakespeare, and Bible. Prize your time now you have it. Listen today to Micah.
The twelve minor prophets (named) include the prophet of righteousness, Micah ben Imlah.
Since we are in the middle of some old time religion winter weather, with school children sleeping in school in Atlanta and temperatures cascading in Albany and wind sweeping the frozen plains of Arkansas, we might hearken again to the prophet Micah, whose own voice carries three thousand years later with the harsh, crisp and freezing jolt of a blizzard.
Other windswept, snow covered scriptural peaks stand at the same height as Micah 6. Deuteronomy 6:5 stands just as tall: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. Leviticus 19:18 stands just as tall: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Jonah 4:2 stands just as tall: the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Amos 5: 24 stands just as tall: Let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as an ever flowing stream.
Then there is our joy, our memory verse for today (and you will want it memorized): What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God?
These verses are not religious. They are helpful to religious people. They are beneficial to religious communities. They are nourishing to religious sentiment. But they are not in themselves religious. They require no creed, save that common to all people. They demand no cult, save the culture of the human being at her best. They depend on no special experience, no esoteric experience, just that shared by every mortal, of three score and ten years. They rely on no foundational history, save the history common to the planet. These verses are not religious. They are merely true.
Look for a minute at Micah.
Let us find grace this winter in Scripture.
Luncheon awaits us, and group life, and conversation, today. More than we regularly admit, in this brief life, conversation among friends is lastingly meaningful. To say ‘good morning’ and really mean it. To inquire about another’s well being and tune to the response. To journal and record memorable phrases, odd silences, dream sequences, and the mind waking in the morning. We greet one another in communion, and then following service to acquire the knowledge of names. It is all right to ask more than once. We are all more human than anything else. For all our vaunted differences, we utterly resemble each other, as we admit and relearn in conversation.
We are all more human and more alike than we regularly affirm, all of us on this great globe.
We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All six billion.
We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion.
We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion.
We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All six billion.
We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All six billion.
We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All six billion.
Let us find grace this winter in conversation.
Today in community, or later in the week in pastoral visit and communion, we will receive the lord’s supper. Two sacraments and five sacramental rites.
One such, the moment of memorial, 600 of us entered, last Saturday in remembrance of a son of Boston University, Dr. Kenneth Edelin. The truth and love in the afternoon made of that cold day a warm sacramental gathering. Listen to the voices of those who spoke:
Governor Patrick: Justice is what love looks like in real life.
Rev. Liz Walker: Truth without love is brutality. Love without truth is sentimentality.
Ken Edelin: the seamlessness between doctor and patient (or, I would say, between pastor and parishioner, minister and congregation).
30 standing as students who were studying medicine through his influence and support.
Barack Obama, Gloria Steinem, Jeh Johnson (later on The State of the Union address).
Charlene Hunter-Gault: The Lord is my Shepherd
Arthur Ashe’s physician: Days of Grace
All days are days of grace and all days of grace offer means of grace
Let us find grace this winter in sacrament.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Let us find grace this winter in prayer.
Wesley taught us prudently to use the means of grace: exercise, scripture, conversation, sacrament, and prayer. But let us use them, use them, use them!
~Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…
Many of you will remember our evening Christmas Eve service, and its conclusion. It is one of the few times, as a congregation, at which we gather in the dark. After prayers, scripture, sermon and Eucharist, there is a pause. The organ plays a bit, preparing the way for the singing of Silent Night.
Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht
Alles schlaft, einsem vacht…
Schlaf im himmlischer Ruh
Schlaf im himmlischer Ruh
The usher team douses the light in the nave. Clergy pass a bit of flame and fire from one candle to another. At the start there is a startling darkness. There is a depth of darkness, a deep and empty kind of quiet. There is a yearning, there, a longing, then, a waiting. I ponder it, following Christmas, every year, and more so as years go by. People who would not otherwise darken the door of a church on a sunlit Sunday, will and do stand in the dark, and sing songs in the night. Now, what is that about? Most of our worship is on Sunday morning, in the light. But on Christmas Eve we sing ‘songs in the night’, as Job might have it said. Songs in the night.
I remember our daughter now 34, singing Away in a Manger, at age 3, in a country church, with the sense and scent of milking present, in the dark. I remember a front pew of visiting foreign students, in a city church at midnight, trying to make sense singing out of the Methodist hymnal, which many were holding upside down, in the dark. I remember, a church later, a rustle, like a covey of birds taking flight, in the rows of the Sopranos and bases, near midnight, when a wedding ring was offered and receive and the deal was struck, Bass to Soprano, after an anthem sung, in the dark. I remember your faces here in Marsh Chapel, candles lit, moving through the familiar verses of a familiar carol, a hymn somehow though sung into an utter strangeness, in the dark. Songs in the night.
It is a mystical moment. A Nicholas of Cusa moment. Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) would have reminded us of the importance of a learned ignorance. He would have recalled the priority of the spiritual journey. Cusa would have taught us about the central importance of an experience of de-centering of the executive self. He might have seen in the dark a kind of divine presence. Cusa I think would have celebrated as a very sign of the divine your own personal trek to church that night. And this morning. Nicholas of Cusa may have been on your minds, or someone’s, that dark night, four weeks ago. For Christmas Eve, candles held, is one of the few moments in community when we see the light, see the light in the dark, really sense and see the light in which we see light. It is a nearly unique culturally affirmed moment in which we wonder about appearance and reality. We are freed, given permission even, to stand in a dark, empty presence that envelops us, dislocates us, unnerves us, and embraces us. I can see you holding the candle, that night. I can hear you singing the carol, that night. I can recall the Thurman choir in resonant, redolent voice, that night. I can remember you receiving a benediction that night.
Is it too much to hope that the darkness of Christmas and the light of Epiphany might throughout the year cause us to see light? What were we doing here on Christmas Eve? What was that dark moment, candle lit, all about anyway? We arrived by mystery, live by mystery, and leave by mystery. A mysterium tremendum.
En una noche oscura.
Con ansias en amores inflamadas
O! Dichosa Ventura!
Sali sin ser notada
Estando ya mi casa sosegada
The gospel today illumines our darkness, lightens our darkness, in order to minimize our metaphysical mistakes, our metaphysical malpractice. Our readings today are all about light. The Gospel recites an Isaian prophecy, read already earlier, that light will come even to the least, the last, the lost, the outcast region of Galilee, the abode of the non-religious. Christ came for the ungodly not for the godly, says Paul in Romans. The Gospel shows us four who saw light and left nets and became disciples. ‘Peter and Andrew, free and grown. James and John, young and home.’ The light of the Gospel is candle light, here and there, emerging but a long way from noonday heat, sporadic, personal—and beautiful.
1. With Peter, light the candle of incarnation.
As Faulker said of us, ‘they learn nothing save through suffering, and understanding nothing save what is written in blood’. We might do a bit better daily to pursue a learned ignorance. We risk harm when we mistake other things for incarnation. The gospel of Matthew affirms the incarnation of the Christ, in the flesh. That is—children’s flesh, adolescent’s flesh, young couples’ flesh, people, people, people. The image of God. To restore this image we give ourselves over each day and week to do the hard work of preaching and liturgical preparation. We desire the rich announcement of incarnation. That is, we are in the people business. We are in the grace business, not the talent business. We are in the grace business, not the cleverness business. Here. For example as P Gomes wrote:
A few years ago the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University and I engaged in one of our frequent exchanges of pulpits and each of us took an old sermon across the river to preach in the other’s pulpit. It is probably no secret to you that sermons are recycled. If the great works of Bach can be heard over and over and over again, why cannot the best offerings that we have to make? The only rule is that you don’t repeat it to the same congregation. So Dean Thornburg came over here to Memorial Church to preach to Harvard, and I went over to Marsh Chapel to preach to Boston University. In the business of the when we exchanged the information for our respective bulletins so that the people would know what it was we thought we were saying, we each found out what the other was preaching about. Dean Thornburg chose to give his sermon the title “God and the Know-it-all”. The sermon that I took from my pile without consultation with Bob was titled “Ordinary People”. Someone who knew us both wondered if we were trying to insult our respective congregations on that morning, and there were some people at Boston University, sensitive souls, who rather resented the fact that the preacher of Harvard University should preach to them about ordinary people.
2. With Andrew, light the candle of integrity.
The ongoing spiritual journey affirms integrity not just innocence. Innocence is not holiness, nor holiness innocence. While there are many facets to this single haphazard metamedical blunder, the matter of sex alone should make it clear. In our region we hardly talk about sex—a tragic silence given the unfiltered filth of the internet that has invaded most homes far beyond our poor power to add or detract. After the flames of the 60’s Jack Tuell and a couple of other Bishops sat over coffee and came up with the phrase, “in singleness celibacy, in marriage fidelity”. Given the chaos of the time, the phrase made some ordering sense. But today it has served to muzzle and muffle fully honest talk about sex. Tuell’s own confessional, repositioning sermon on homosexuality specifically mentions, and laments, the phrase. Our forgetfulness about the nature of life as a journey has caused good people to mask their struggle for integrity, in failure as well as success, with a false innocence, assuming there can be no integrity without innocence. We need to find our voice again, to honor God’s good gift of sexuality, and its best expression within the sacramental rite of marriage. We need a fuller conversation. And a more theological one. Couples marry later today than once they did. They are far more ready for a theological consideration of love, sexuality and marriage than years before. They can think together about the Song of Solomon. You can travel toward integrity and holiness without innocence. I might redact Tuell this way: in singleness integrity; in partnership fidelity.
More generally, we know the process of repentance: to apologize, seek pardon, find restitution, and move onward. We are often our own very worst enemies in forgetting this. We tend to tell our biggest lies to ourselves.
3. With James, light the candle of divine presence.
The true light that enlightens everyone…Some of that illumination, for some, may come with a mystical theology that does not replace God with Jesus. As a Christian, I say, Jesus is not all the God there is. We are still wallowing, as Doug Hall warned a generation ago (you see it does take a long time), in a Unitarianism of the Second Person of the Trinity. The gentle wisdom of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Huston Smith and so many others might have broadened our creaky Christomonism. And our sense of the mystery of life. As Smith repeated, ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. Yes, we want to name the name. The name that is above every name. But that name does not drown the others, like a Gulf hurricane, or bomb the others, like a Desert Storm, or burn the others like a terrorist hijacking, or make others ‘surrender’ like a thief. When John wrote “I am the way…”, he meant that wherever there is a way– there is the Christ, wherever there is truth– there is Christ, wherever there is life– there Christ is, too. The day I met the Clergy Session of Conference, at Syracuse University, to be passed on for orders, Huston Smith himself walked over to the session from his office on the other side of the quad. He stood by me, outside as I waited. I was nervous. He assured me I had no reason to be. We need that voice today! Decades later I read Smith’s credo: We are in good hands, so it well behooves us to bear one another’s burdens. The mystery of God is greater than the measure of our mind, and greater than the Christology of the Reformation, and greater than the purpose driven life. The greater the body of knowledge, the longer the shore line of mystery that surrounds it.
4. With John, light the candle of generosity.
The de centering of the self, the illumination of soul, sometimes comes with real generosity, disciplined generosity. Is there a part of your soul which, once illumined by real generosity, would illumine all the rest? The faithful life involves specific, serious commitments with regard to time, to people, and to money. To be a Christian is to worship weekly, to keep faith in marriage and other close relationships, and to give away 10% of what one earns.
The pervasive materialism of our culture receives its rejection in generosity, not in mere giving. The enduring sense of entitlement in our county receives its contradiction in generosity, not in mere giving. The abject loneliness of non communal life receives its denial in generosity, not in mere giving. We have spent too much time trying to encourage people, bit by bit, to keep faith. We need the illumination of real and disciplined generosity.
How would your spouse feel if you said, “You know, I was 40% faithful this year, a 5% increase from last year.” That would not fly in my home. Other things would fly (pans, knives, etc), but that would not! Nor can this euphemistic blather about “abundance”, a culture of abundance, last much longer. We need full affirmation of a culture of scarcity, not abundance, and the virtues, once our stock in trade, that come with scarcity: frugality, saving, temperance, industry, and, yes, tithing.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…
Will somebody light a candle? Is it too much to hope that the darkness of Christmas and the light of Epiphany might throughout the year cause us to see light? What were we doing here on Christmas Eve? What was that dark moment, candle lit, all about anyway? Will somebody light a candle? Sing a song in the night? In the dark, see the light?
Silent Night, Holy Night
Son of God, Love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
~Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
The Parable of the Great Banquet
When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”
Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’
“But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’
“Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’
“Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’
“The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
“‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’
“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’”
To Dean Robert Hill, in his absence, and the fine chapel assistants and staff of Marsh Chapel; to you, the Marsh Chapel congregation and our radio listeners, and especially to the faculty, students and staff of Boston University, I am indeed delighted to be here again on this special Sunday in which we celebrate the living legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Had he lived, he would have been 85 years-old on this past Wednesday.
Introduction and Elaboration of Thesis
Our Gospel text is about a table conversation between Jesus and a rich and influential man of the cloth. Jesus had been invited not so much because the pleasure of his company was sincerely desired, but so that he could be watched by the cynical and critical eyes of his enemies. They wanted to see him break the rules in some word or act of religious and moral impropriety. In response to his host’s table blessing, “Blessed is he who shall break bread in the Kingdom of God”, Jesus relates the story of the Great Banquet which you have heard in the reading this morning.
In the parable, a certain man prepared a huge feast and invited all the people who are on his regular guest lists: his friends, the socialites, the fat cats and the play- makers, but they all for some reason or another made paltry excuses and did not come. So when the servant returned and reported this to his master, the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant to ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’ “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’” The second and third invitations are different in respect to degree, each was more expansive than the other—from the streets and alleys of the town to the rural roads and country lanes—the servant’s orders were to compel them to come to the banquet. Welcoming the unwelcomed to the feast involved radical hospitality (and it still does).
The Welcome Table Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.—William Faulkner, Light in August
As we gather on this very special Sunday, dedicated to the memory of our greatest alumnus, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I thought it appropriate to pause and reflect on the place of memory and its power to evoke presences; ghosts, if you will, who beckon us, nudge us and demand of us that we take up their quarrel with the foe. All around us and within us, we are surrounded by memories that seek habitation in our lives, our speech and actions. It was Dean Howard Thurman who often said from this pulpit, “We died but you who live must do a harder thing than dying is. . .You must think and ghosts will drive you on.”1
During the holidays, I was struck by the powerful symbol of the Table. The times at the Table with family, friends and food were filled with moments of joy and of sadness— but precious memories, nonetheless, that I cherish because they help me to believe. I had plenty of memories. There were memories of my mother busy in the small kitchen in Chicago preparing for the big meal of ham, turkey and dressing, candied yams, greens, macaroni and cheese, cakes and pies. Ours was not the idyllic Christmas of John Boy on the Walton Farm or Beaver and Wally at the Cleaver dinner table, rather it was the gathering of my sisters, brother and brother-in-laws, uncles and aunts and cousins and friends who would drop by for good food and fellowship. Everybody was from Mississippi or one of the southern places from which people had come in search of “the warmth of other suns”. They had long memories of families gathering together at the Table. It was a Table where everyone was welcome and it really didn’t matter whether you were related or in the family’s circle of friends, if you showed up, you got fed. We knew then about the meaning of the Welcome Table–it meant radical hospitality for the least of these.
I think that we are forgetting (or have forgotten) that The Welcome Table is part of a great American tradition. Maybe once upon time, we, as African Americans, took it so seriously because we knew something about not being welcomed—not being welcomed in certain establishments, certain schools, certain neighborhoods, certain parties, around certain people—even certain churches and cemeteries. We knew what it meant to be unwelcome, so we worked hard at preparing a table that was big enough to welcome all. That’s why the old enslaved Africans, who had been relegated to the margins of anonymity and profanity, would gather way down in their brush arbor meetings and while working in the fields, and sing a song about The Welcome Table:
I’m going to sit at the welcome table Yes, I’m going to sit at the welcome table One of these days, hallelujah I’m going to sit at the welcome table Sit at the welcome table one of these days, one of these days I’m going to feast on milk and honey… I’m going to tell God how you treat me… All God’s children gonna sit together… I’m going to sit at the welcome table..3
Kennedy, King, Mandela and Obama and the Welcome Table
These “black and unknown bards” knew that while the Welcome Table was part of the great eschatological hope of African Americans, it was also costly. On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Sunday, I want us to remember people who paid the price for all of us to come to the Table. There are so many heroes and sheroes whose memories visit us from the past 50 years. Both 1963 and 1964 were powerful moments which shaped the legal, moral and spiritual landscape of the United States of America forever. I want to lift up the names of Medgar Evers (field secretary NAACP, murdered June 12, 1963); Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair (the 4 little girls who died in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963); and the 3 civil rights workers, Michael H. Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James E Chaney (murdered June 21, 1964 and found two months later in an earthen dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi)—all martyred in the struggle for justice in this country. They made possible the Welcome Table through radical hospitality. Now they implore us to join them at the Table. Longfellow wrote:
There are more guests at table than the hosts Invited; the illuminated hall Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts, As silent as the pictures on the wall.2
In late November of the past year, the nation was busy remembering the erudite and handsome, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, who was assassinated 50 years ago. Although some were suspicious of his politics and cautious embrace of the civil rights movement, in almost every African American home of the sixties his picture was on the wall alongside Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. His picture was there in commemoration not so much for his brilliance and commitment to civil rights—-but because of his absence. Although some felt he came kicking and screaming, he made room for us at the Welcome Table. So, we treated him as family.
Most Americans of that era had a deep respect and abiding reverence for the office of president. I am not so sure now. The dangerous incivility and racist innuendoes hurled at President Obama convince me that though seasons have changed, still most Americans find it easier to revere our fallen heroes than to honor and believe in the possibility of the present ones.
On August 28th of this year, my wife and I joined the throng of thousands who returned to the Lincoln Memorial, this site of memory, to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. While sitting there, I could not help but reflect on the progress that we have made towards the realization of that dream, but also on how far we still must go “if America is to become a great nation” as King so eloquently proclaimed. I was trying to believe. While we sat there in the shadow of the Great Emancipator, there were signs and banners calling attention to the George Zimmerman verdict in the killing of Trayon Martin, a seventeen year old teenager in Sanford, Florida. President Obama’s remarks that “Trayvon could have been me thirty-five years ago” came as a source of encouragement for many mass protests of righteous indignation and cries for justice from citizens around the nation. On the other hand, many felt that he had inserted the proverbial race-card into an already volatile situation of fractured race relations in this country. Some conservative pundits blamed him for acting as the “Racist-in-Chief” while some critics within the black community felt that he said too little, too late—that his statement was like “pre-sweetened Kool-Aid” suggesting that it was palliative, at best, and failed to address the deep structural issues at stake for the poor and black and hopeless masses who needed his engaged and embodied leadership in this case and others.
One has to ask why this continued public harassment of President Barack Hussein Obama which appears to be intensifying as Supreme Court rulings carefully and effectively began to dismantle the hard-fought gains of the Civil Rights Movement (the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action) in the year of the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic speech.3 Is it because there are some people in this country who are afraid of the Welcome Table?
I visited family over the holidays and in the home of my sister there was a picture on the wall next to Martin and Malcolm X. It is the dignified portrait of Nelson Mandela. He was not made in America, yet he helps me to believe. He was a beautiful man with a soft smile and deep humanity. When I was at Morehouse College, each summer, I led a delegation of students sponsored by Oprah Winfrey to South Africa to study ethical leadership within the context of the South African democratization process. After a visit to Robben Island, the prison facility where Mandela spent most of his 27 years incarcerated, one of the students wrote in his diary:
The impact was strongest when I stood directly in front of Nelson Mandela’s cell, number five in the B section, which was reserved for political prisoners. Sections A and C housed criminal prisoners. What affected me most was to hear how these prisoners were actually treated. It was heart-breaking to look at the cement floor where Mr. Mandela slept without a cot or anything for cushion. It was enormously troubling to look at the five-gallon bucket that Mr. Mandela had to use for a bathroom because there was no toilet in his cell. Who can imagine having to smell something like that two feet away from you all night long until the following morning when you were allowed to empty and clean your waste bucket?4
We cannot help but resonate with this student’s feelings as he observed Mr. Mandela’s inhumane circumstances, but we also marvel at the deep humanity of this man who forced an apartheid government to open up the Welcome Table and who emerged as the first black president of South Africa and statesman to the world. Madiba teaches us that:
Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage; Minds innocent and quiet take That for an hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above, Enjoy such liberty.5
Today, I would like to place another picture on the wall this morning. It is a picture of my colleague, Professor Kathe Darr, Chair of the Faculty Council, who has made a commitment to expand the Welcome Table at Boston University. She is joined by the President and Provost in this commitment to diversity. Let us pray that in this year when we celebrate the memory and legacy of Martin Luther King, that we place more pictures on the wall.
Opening up The Welcome Table: Welcoming the Unwelcomed
I often wonder what it will take to produce a new generation of leaders who understand the power and the cost of radical hospitality and who are willing to build on the great vision of a beloved community. What might it mean to become servants of justice and truth in this place that is haunted by the memories of Martin Luther King, Jr., Howard Thurman, Barbara Jordan, Anna Howard Shaw, Walter Muelder and Samuel DeWitt Proctor and so many others, who like ghosts, drive us on? Echoing Frederick Douglass, King often said, “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless effort and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.”6 Ah, there it is! Co-workers with God! An old-fashioned, unsophisticated theological assumption that has no empirical warrant and backing? Maybe . . . but it got the job done. I think it still will.
Ours is a daunting challenge, but if we are truly committed to welcoming the unwelcome here at Boston University and elsewhere, we must join the long and hallowed chorus of brave women and men and boys and girls who have dared to make room for others at the Table. King called these principled actors who are willing to risk life and limb through nonviolent creative social change, “transformed nonconformists.”
Summary and Closing
In closing, parables can be tricky—the Parable of the Great Banquet does not tell us how much work and how hard it is to welcome the unwelcomed—to expand the guest lists and to restructure the rooms so that “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” can come in.
First, welcoming the unwelcomed involves courage—the courage to change. According to Martin Luther King, Jr. it begins with a transformation in consciousness— a revolution of values and priorities. It implies a re-orientation of values and priorities, it requires a readjustment of our worldview, it requires a rearrangement of the personal and social furniture in our living rooms—more than that it requires a type of courage, a kind of resistance, a steadfastness to go in spite of the resistance. It says, “Wait on the Lord, be of good courage, and God will strengthen your heart.”
Second, welcoming the unwelcome will require a sense of justice. Justice as fairness—a level playing field. If we are going to invite others to the Table, we will need to change the menu, change the rules of etiquette, restructure the dining room and change the seating arrangements. We will need to make room for folks at the Table who do not look like us, talk like us, dress like us, love like us and pray like us. It means ultimately, that we must learn to share power. For the religious among us, it will require repentance, confession and conversion. For some Christians, this will be especially hard.
Finally, we must practice compassion for the least of these. Who are the least of these? They are the ones whom we do not see, whom we seldom even think about except when in our hurried pace, we pass them on the street or see them behind bars or lying in their own blood on the evening news. One has to ask how is it that in a nation of so much wealth and prosperity, we are witnessing more and more poverty, mis- education, mass incarceration of the black, brown and poor, the left-out and the left behind?
Who are who are the least of these? They are your sisters and your brothers locked in poverty and locked out of a future of hope and possibility. Dare we see the face of our brothers and sisters from whom we are estranged and find our own faces?
We need not look far to see what is at stake in this call to radical hospitality. It is not enough to be gentle, civil and progressive—these are fine personal attributes, but ultimately we are called to put some skin in the game, to stand up and join the creative forces that call us to justice and peace-making in this world. Leaders in this century are called to be more than charitable actors who respond to the needs of individuals; they must be willing to stand at the intersection where worlds collide and create communities of justice and compassion. Who dares to stand in the absent spaces and places left by King and others and suffer with strangers? Who dares to welcome the Unwelcomed to the Table?
1 From Howard Thurman’s meditation in memory of Jim Reeb in the issue of The Liberal Context (Spring 1965) a paraphrase from Hermann Hagedorn’s The Boy in Armor, “Because you would not think we had to die : . . . .We died. And there you stand no step advanced.”
2 “Haunted Houses” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
3 In 1964 Congress passed Public Law 88-352 (78 Stat. 241). The provisions of this civil rights act forbade discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race in hiring, promoting, and firing.
4 Walter Earl Fluker, Ethical Leadership: The Quest for Character, Civility, and Community (Fortress, 2009)166.
5 Richard Lovelace, “To Althea, From Prison” (1642)
6Douglass actually said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle.” Frederick Douglass, “West India Emancipation” speech at Canandaigua, New York, August 3, 1857. See more at: http://www.blackpast.org/1857-frederick- douglass-if-there-no-struggle-there-no-progress#sthash.fLNNA0p9.dpuf Accessed, 19 January 2014.
~The Rev. Dr. Walter Fluker
MLK, Jr. Professor for Ethical Leadership, Boston University School of Theology
Good morning, I want to especially extend my gratitude to Dean Robert Alan Hill for the opportunity to preach this morning, from such a historic and meaningful pulpit. I also want to send lots of love and thanks to all the Marsh Chapel staff for supporting me, encouraging me, and growing with me in my first year of working in marsh Chapel as the chaplain for International Students. And I also want to thank all of you, in the pews before me, and in the radio listenership, for journeying with me on my maiden voyage of preaching Marsh Chapel. While I have preached many times before, each pulpit brings something new, and I am happy to share these next few moments in relationship with you.
**Please pray with me:
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be compassionate and acceptable in your sight. Amen.
According to a Gallop poll, the top 3 New Years Resolutions in 2014 were as follows: 1. lose weight/get fit. (no surprise there) 2. get organized. 3. save more/spend less. While I have long since given up hope on holding fast to a new years resolution for a whole year-my resolutions in the past have not made it past the month, let alone the year; I find myself falling pray to these same notions each January as we begin a new year with new resolves and goals. Just this past week, you can ask my poor husband Carson, I felt the urge to move around every single piece of furniture in my apartment, to renew the space and to get more organized. As human beings, renewal is a crucial part of our existence, we are constantly trying to re-create ourselves, find new meaning, and develop new goals. When we are renewed, we are often revived, which hopefully will lead us to respond.
Epiphany: On the Christian Liturgical Calendar, we have entered into a time of Epiphany. As Rev. Soren Hessler noted last Sunday in his sermon, Epiphany occurred this past Monday, when we imagined and remembered the magi traveling far and wide to find a baby in a manger, and in a whirlwind moment of realization they are struck with the knowledge that this is no ordinary child-but the Christ, god among us. This is the Magi’s epiphany. In one of my favorite movies, the 1993 film, ‘Hook’, it retells a story of an adult peter pan returning to Neverland to save his children. A Character in this movie is a bumbling pirate, a first mate named Mr. Smee. Mr. Smee has a similar moment to these Magi when he realizes something crucial about the plot. He shouts to Captain Hook: “I’ve just had an apostrophe!” Hook responds, “I think you mean an epiphany, Mr. Smee.” Smee says “Lightning has just struck my brain.” Hook retorts, “Well, that must hurt.”
While comical, there is something honest in this statement. Sometimes this season of Epiphany strikes us suddenly that we scramble to figure out what to do. During Advent we have a clear narrative path that leads us to the manger; and during the upcoming season of Lent we have a clear narrative path that leads us to the cross; and we often overlook the importance of this transition period that is Epiphany. Epiphany is truly a gift. We are given a mere 7 Sundays, just shy of 2 months, to explore the early life and ministry of Jesus.
While studying at Princeton Theological Seminary, I had a Systematic Theology professor who told us one day as we were studying the early church creeds, that in the Nicene Creed- while it states so much about the make-up spiritually and physically of Christ and beautifully tells the tale of the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ, all we see of Jesus’ life in ministry in the Nicene Creed is a comma. A grammatical comma. As many of you are familiar, part of the creed states:
“For us and for our salvation
He came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man (COMMA),
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
He suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
In accordance with the Scriptures…. (etc etc).”
Epiphany is for us an expansion of that comma. A chance to renew our common faith by reflecting on Jesus’ servant ministry and finding ways to respond with compassionate hearts likewise.
Baptism Sunday: It is then no coincidence that the Revised Common lectionary pairs this first Sunday of Epiphany with Christ’s Baptism. In fact, on the wider Christian calendar this Sunday is more commonly known as “Christ’s Baptism Sunday.” We enter into a new season liturgically, just as Jesus enters into his new ministry. In the book of Matthew, this baptismal scene between Jesus and John is a marker of the beginning of Christ’s teaching, healing, loving ministry. Baptism has long been associated with renewal and Jesus seeks out John to be renewed by this ritual cleansing in the river Jordan.
But something strange happens as Jesus approaches John to be baptized; John initially refuses, recognizing that Jesus is the superior in ministry, and instead John requests to be baptized by Jesus instead. The situation is, in a word, awkward. I heard a sermon once from a great preacher titled “The problem of baptism” and he cited this moment as being awkward, messy, problematic. We still struggle with baptism in many ways today, 2,000 years later- even as the ritual has been practiced in various forms in the Christian church for years and years-we still approach the topic cautiously. With Jesus and John it was ‘who should baptize who’, but in our current context we often hear debates on ‘infant baptism verses adult baptism’, ‘anointment or no anointment’, ‘immersion, or a sprinkling’, and so on and so forth. The gist is: baptism has always been a bit messy. But there is real truth and beauty to this very statement. To be renewed through the waters of baptism does not mean that your life becomes perfect, pure, or you are set on a straightforward path of faithfulness. In the past, we have often associate the renewal of baptism with perfection-with becoming whole and having all the answers.
But the so called ‘problem’ with baptism is that when you come up from the water, whether a baby or adult, whether sprinkled or immersed-you are renewed into a beautiful mess. You begin a long and complicated journey of learning who God is, what it means to live faithfully, how to exist in community, how to grow into your Christian identity. Even after Jesus baptism he acquires some bumbling disciples who mess up a lot, and he enters into a complex life of ministry-which is sometimes difficult, problematic, and awkward. But it is still a renewal-and your renewal into this messy Christian life is complex but so worthwhile. This renewal is rewarding, and full of surprises, but that does not always mean that it will be easy, or perfect, or pure. Like Smee’s epiphany-renewal sometimes hurts.
A few years ago, as a newly ordained minister, I spent a portion of my year serving as a volunteer for the World Service Corps, a non profit organization that sends volunteers into foreign service to help people in need and learn about culture. I lived with a spear fisherman and his family in New Caledonia, a tiny tropical island between Tahiti and New Zealand. There, I learned to eat fish for breakfast lunch and dinner every day, I presided over my first communion table, and spent most of my time establishing an after school program for local under-privileged children that still continues today. The island as a whole spoke a variation of French and local Melanesian languages.
When I first arrived, I had very, very basic understanding of French and could do no more than order a ham sandwich, but even sometimes my pronunciation was so bad I sometimes got chicken. Thus, during my first few weeks of running this after school program we played a lot of ‘red light, green light’-because it only required my knowledge of 3 french words: lumiere rouge, and lumiere vert. We would open up our school program by playing red light green light with the children on a little strip of land, which was mixture of gravel and rough grass behind the facility. At one point, a little boy, no more than 4 years old ran so hard that he slipped and fell onto the gravel and scraped up his knee. He started to scream and cry and wail, and the other children were startled and backed away.
I scooped him up quickly and took him inside, I cleaned him up and got a Band-Aid for his knee, but he was still weeping so violently. I tried talking to him, “where does it hurt”, “are you ok?” “what do you need”, trying to figure out what else I could do to help him. But the language barrier was steep, and my pitiful French was getting us no where. His eyes full of tears, he just looked up at me and continued to wail. I gave up on the words, and moved towards him and just wrapped him up in my arms, kissed him on the head, on the cheeks, on his scraped knee and hugged him tight. Almost immediately, he stopped crying. I was bewildered. Astonished, I let go of him, and he smiled, looked up at me and said: “All new”. I think he meant all better, or good as new. But ‘All new” made sense to me too. What started out as an uncomfortable, stressful, awkward moment turned into a beautiful renewal. The beautiful mess of living a faithful life leads to these incredible epiphany moments of renewal.
Another important guide for us during this epiphany season is the prophet Isaiah. In today’s lesson Isaiah addresses the people of Israel and calls them forth to be revived. Often when we are seeking renewal, trying to change and become newer and better, we find revival-a new sense of sustainment, a new call or purpose. In Isaiah 42, Israel is facing an identity crisis. They have been exiled, tortured, abandoned, homeless, starved, and much worse. They are coming out of the hard times and slowly edging there way into the good times-but they aren’t sure who they are anymore; the people of Israel struggled to find a sense of purpose, a sense of call. Isaiah, in a prophetic song calls out to them to become servants of peace. They are given a new identity to bring forth light to the nations, to bring forth justice, and teaching without burning a wick or breaking a reed. Israel is a revived in a renewed identity to become examples of peace and justice in the world.
In the Matthew passage, as we all know, John does finally consent to baptize Jesus. Jesus affirms that it is righteous for John to baptize him. And as Jesus comes out of the River Jordan, renewed, the Spirit of God in the form of a dove descends and a voice from heaven states, ‘this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’. The people present, including John himself, feel revived in there faith. Much like the Israelites, they are given a new identity. They have a new purpose to become bearers of that good news of that peace and to follow Jesus and his ministry throughout their days.
Once Israel has been renewed and revived, once Jesus has come up from the baptismal waters renewed and revived, both respond in acts of humility, acts of service and acts of compassion. Jesus leaves the River Jordan and goes to begin a ministry of healing, teaching, and preaching. Israel following these prophetic songs from Isaiah, becomes a peaceful people sharing the joy of the Lord with all of those around them.
We have a lot of guideposts in our society when we look in the world that show us what it means to RESPOND. For me, one of those guide posts is Albert Schweitzer. Albert Schweitzer was a great theologian and peace activist in the 1930’s-1960’s. Schweitzer was constantly looking for new and active avenues for peace; he even worked closely with Albert Einstein to find ways to stop nuclear warfare. Albert Schweitzer received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 for his work. When he got off at the train station in Switzerland to receive his award, he was overwhelmingly met by a great crowd of people. Reporters swarmed him with cameras and questions. Noted officials, politicians, and admirers all stepped forward to shake his hand and speak with him. He stood on the platform smiling, and held up his finger and said “Please, excuse me, I only need one moment”. He walked over to the edge of the train station where an elderly woman was struggling with her two large suitcases. He picked them up for her and carried them across the platforms until she found her train and helped her stow them before returning to the crowd and apologizing for his delay. A reporter who was there wrote in his article, “that was the first time I ever really saw a sermon walking.” Albert Schweitzer, in that moment and through much of his life-chose to respond.
As we move through this season of Epiphany, and through the New Year beginning this month, my challenge to you is that you take your moments of renewal and of revival and respond to the world around you.
Israel seeks renewal and begs the prophet Isaiah for a song, in this prophet’s song Israel is revived and called to be a people of peace and justice. Israel responds by living out lives of compassion, conducting acts of peace, and offering justice to all. Jesus seeks renewal at the waters of river Jordan and in the arms of John the Baptist. In his baptism, he is revived into the servant teacher, minister, and prophet that we have come to know. Jesus leaves the Jordan ready to respond to the needs of the world around him. He heals the hurting, uplifts the broken, frees the captive, and loves the needy. We have a chance to make Christ’s life more than a comma this year-we can actively care for the hungry, support the broken, work for the justice and freedom of captives, share peace with those in conflict, and share love and compassion with every single person who comes into our life this year.
We have been renewed through our baptism, through reflecting on Jesus’ baptism today and by coming into the natural renewal of a New Year. We have been revived in living through this beautiful mess of Christian life and in walking alongside Jesus as he teaches, preaches, and blesses us through this season of Epiphany. Let us take these gifts of renewal and revival and respond to the world around us.
I was privileged just a couple weeks ago to participate in a Christmas eve noon service in this very chapel. We lit all of the advent candles, sang some of my favorite Christmas hymns, and celebrated the imminent coming of Christ’s birth with the Eucharist. In closing, Dean Hill read a poem titled ‘The Work of Christmas’ by Howard Thurman. The poem goes:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among siblings,
To make music in the heart.
My friends, the kings and the princes have gone home and the shepherds are back with there flock. But Christ has been baptized and is moving forward in love to offer ministry and healing to all. Israel has been called to be a servant people of peace and prophetic joy. The work of Christmas has begun for us. As we journey into this new year, and into this new season of Epiphany, let us also be called into our season of renewal with a sense to Respond.
Through Christ we are renewed, through our faithful life in loving community we are revived, and in the work of Christmas we can respond. This is our epiphany. Amen.
~The Rev. Brittany Longsdorf,
University Chaplain for International Students
Nicene Creed translation taken from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.
“Messing People Up”, sermon by Rev. Dr. Alison Boden, Princeton University. January 11th, 2009.
Commentary on Isaiah 49:1-7, by Rev. Dr. Amy Oden. Workingpreacher.org. January 5th, 2014.
Commentarys used for Research: New Interpreters Bible Series, World Commentary Bible Series, New Oxford Bible Commentary, Harper Collins Study Bible Notes, and Anchor Bible Dictionary.
Good morning. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!
It is always a great honor and privilege to be invited to greet you from this pulpit. Jen and I have been a part of this community at Marsh Chapel for more than five years now, and I am continually delighted and awed by the work and ministry of this place. I am truly grateful to Dean Hill for the opportunity to be with you this morning and for seeing fit to continue both Jen and I on the staff these past several years.
Part of the attraction for me to Marsh Chapel over these years has been its truly ecumenical approach to chaplaincy and religious life. Of course we are rooted in the Methodist tradition which gave birth to the university, and both Jen and I, like the dean, are United Methodist clergy, but the ministry staff represents a broad spectrum of denominations and communities: American Baptist, Community of Christ, Episcopal, Lindisfarne, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist. We each come from different religious communities but we are united in our purpose of journeying with students as they explore faith, grow in knowledge, and commit to service in the greater community. Certainly we don’t always agree on the finer details of theology and doctrine (that’s why we have both wine and grape juice at Communion today and each week it is celebrated here in the nave), but the spirit of ecumenical cooperation for a greater good pervades the work of this place.
This intentional ecumenism is made manifest in a variety of ways. This morning, the wine and grape juice are perhaps the most tangible of examples, but every week you will notice that the bulletin welcomes you to an “interdenominational service of worship.” The liturgy itself is a blend of traditions. For example, it is not a United Methodist service, nor is it an Episcopal service, but you will find elements of both traditions in the rhythms of the service. Few other places would you hear the Agnus Dei along side a United Methodist setting of the Great Thanksgiving for Communion. Marsh Chapel is both a religious community and a teaching community. It lifts up the best things that our various traditions have to offer, both in liturgy and music, and offers them in regular service to the university community. Hospitality to all, regardless of faith-tradition, sexual orientation, economic status, physical ability, or political view becomes both an important expression of the ecumenical cooperation of the chapel and a constant reminder of how we are to work together in ministry in support of students (and all people) on life’s journey.
Hospitality comes in many forms. For many people, a regular rhythm of worship, including a lesson from the Hebrew Bible and/or a New Testament epistle, a Psalm, and a Gospel lesson makes the liturgy accessible – folks know what to expect from week to week. Well, I might have turned that regular rhythm on its ear this just a bit this morning, but I think I had a good reason to do so. I noticed more than one puzzled face in the nave this morning as we were reading the lessons. Sirach? Wisdom of Solomon? Where is the Psalm? Isn’t today Epiphany? Where is the wise men narrative?
For many years, Marsh Chapel has followed the Revised Common Lectionary. It is the standard set of Bible readings used by a vast majority of mainline Protestants here in North America, the UK, and Australia. In the 1980s, representatives from a variety of liturgically-minded denominations gathered to formulate a lectionary, a cycle of readings, based on the three-year lectionary developed by the Second Vatican Council for the Roman Catholic Church. That “Common Lectionary” was revised in 1993, and has since been adopted for use by more than 30 denominations. While its use in local contexts is optional in many of these denominations, as it is in my own United Methodist Church, it is one way in which a local religious community may be united with others around the world each week, reading the same scriptures and reflecting on similar themes. At Marsh Chapel its use is again an expression of our ecumenical spirit.
The RCL recognizes today as the Second Sunday after Christmas, a liturgical Sunday, which only exists in the calendar year when Christmas falls on particular days of the week. December 25, 2013, happened to be a Wednesday, so we are in luck in 2014. Last year we had no second Sunday after Christmas! Unique liturgical Sundays which do not always occur in a particular year, like today’s Second Sunday after Christmas, play host to a variety of more obscure, sometimes Apocryphal or deuterocanonical, readings. Often, these readings never enter the Sunday morning liturgy, for one of several reasons. Some churches, especially Protestant communities in which Luther’s canon is exclusively used in worship simply elect never to use the Apocryphal and deuterocanonical texts which are always listed as “alternate” or supplemental readings. Or, as is more often the case, local communities will celebrate holidays which generally fall on a weekday on the nearest Sunday, effectively eliminating liturgical days like today. Most United Methodist Churches designate the first Sunday in January as Epiphany Sunday because there are no regular weekday services.
And Epiphany is most certainly important. It heralds the kingship of Christ and recognizes God’s manifestation among us as a human being. On Epiphany, we hear from the Gospel of Matthew of wise men coming from the east asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” They had come to pay him homage and sought Herod’s guidance in finding the child. Eventually, they found Jesus with Mary and they knelt down and paid him homage, opened their treasure chests and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. When I was a child I always liked playing the role of one of the kings in the Christmas play, not really because I got to wear a funny outfit and a really cool crown but because those playing the role of the kings often got to reprise the role for a brief reenactment of the visit of the magi on Epiphany Sunday two weeks after Christmas. As eager as I was for the annual reenactment, I must confess that I never really understood the importance of the wise men’s visit, and I also wondered why there were no wise women.
Not until seminary did I realize that for centuries, the church recognized those travelers from the East as the first to recognize Jesus’s power and authority on Earth, and the role I had played several times as a child was one of remembering this first recognition by people of God’s presence with us on Earth in human flesh. I didn’t see that in the annual retelling of the Christmas story, and I wonder how many others have missed this too. Maybe we are too focused on whether the 6-year old draped in purple sheets is going to trip on his merry journey to visit the baby Jesus, or maybe the theological consequences of a patriarchal authority structure assumed in the words of the Matthew narrative overshadow the specialness of the recognition of Christ as God with us.
Recognizing this theological problem, the editors of Women’s Uncommon Prayers, have imagined an alternative narrative for the magi story entitled “Three Wise Women”:
“If there had been three wise women, would the Epiphany story have been different? You bet it would! They would have asked for directions, arrived early, delivered the baby, cleaned the table, cooked the dinner, and brought practical gifts. God bless wise women!”
Today’s Scripture lessons from the Wisdom tradition provide an alternate vision and language for God made flesh. Our Gospel lesson recognizes the incarnation of God among us and the power vested in Christ. In this first chapter of John, Christ is named as Word, Light, the one through whom all things came into being, full of grace and truth. John concretizes the abstract in the form of Jesus, God incarnate, Word made flesh. There is a certain fondness for John’s gospel at the Chapel; its poetry enchants us; its mystery envelops us. It echoes the beauty of the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures and the multitude of ways in which God’s Word is encountered. But discussions of God’s Word and Wisdom are not limited to the wisdom literature.
Throughout the Hebrew Scripture, God’s Word is God’s creative, immanent, acting force in the world. In the first chapter of Genesis, God speaks creation into being. “God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.” “God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so.” The Psalms praise God’s creative Word: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33:6). Isaiah writes of God’s Word, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).
The Hebrew canon also observes God’s Word as wisdom, especially contained in the sapiential books of Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach. The wisdom tradition found in these texts teaches about God and virtue. God’s Word, or wisdom, is often found in the abstract in these texts. In the Song of Songs, we encounter God as lover of our souls, in the discourse of a prince and his bride. In Proverbs, we encounter maxims and admonitions interspersed with metaphor, truth conveyed in the abstract.
The reading appointed for today from Sirach is no different. Wisdom itself is personified as a woman dwelling among the Hebrew people and ministering to them, an acknowledgement that God’s Word works through and among the people. The reading from the Wisdom of Solomon again extols the deeds of God’s Wisdom, personified as woman, working through the Hebrew people over time.
In John’s gospel we have God’s Word, God’s presence, in each of these many encounters of God retold throughout Scripture bound into the being of Christ: from creation to the crossing of the Red Sea, from a lover’s description of hair like a flock of goats and cheeks like halves of a pomegranate to the proverb that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Wisdom, God’s Wisdom, God’s creating Word is beautiful beyond description. It works outside patriarchal structures, pervades relationships, inspires literature, and is in relationship to us through Jesus Christ. In John’s Gospel, we encounter Christ as the incarnate Word, the Word of Wisdom.
We may be more familiar with the theological metaphor that Jesus is Word, but the theological metaphor that God is Wisdom, Sophia, wise-woman is just as scriptural and deeply true.
Without incorporating the knowledge of God’s Word and Wisdom found throughout scripture, but especially in the wisdom literature of today’s lectionary reading, Epiphany only announces a king with great power, not also God as patient teacher, passionate friend, and eternal companion. The lectionary brings to the fore the fullness of Scripture. This Second Sunday after Christmas is meant to prepare us to hear the story of the magi. We encounter God’s Word as divine Wisdom. She dwells among us, befriends us, inspires us. That same Word and Wisdom is the Divine born into the world on Christmas day. It is the same Word the magi pay homage to, and it is the same Word we know in relationship with Jesus Christ. It is the same Word wise women such as Renita Weems, Mary Daley, Emilie Towns, Elizabeth Johnson, Sallie McFague, Katie Cannon, Dolores Williams, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza have been bringing to us for decades.
What does it mean that God’s Word, which has covered the earth like a mist, dwelt in the highest heavens, and been seated in the pillar of cloud, walks among us in Jesus of Nazareth? Yes, in Jesus is awe, power, and glory. But we also know that God’s patient wisdom, passionate fire, and gentle teaching are also who Jesus is. So often Epiphany and the story of the visit of the magi are used to herald Jesus’s kingship and future rule over all things. But perhaps, the magi were also there celebrating God’s Wisdom, God’s creating Word, encountered directly in an individual human being. That same Word which steadied Moses’s hands as the Red Sea parted was now a child, a child worthy of gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
We do not often think of God’s Word guiding the Israelites across the Red Sea, far less do we envision a Woman steadying Moses’s hands as the sea begins to part. But our texts today challenge us to encounter God’s Word in Christ in new ways. The visit of the wise men to Jesus was an acknowledgement that something truly extraordinary was happening in the world through Jesus.
Today is a communion Sunday for us here at Marsh. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper each first Sunday of the month. We remember Jesus dining with friends, giving thanks over bread and cup, and offering the bread and cup as tangible signs of participation in the new covenant. Just as something truly extraordinary happened in Christ’s incarnation, we recognize something extraordinary happens in the Eucharist. Christ is present in the fellowship of sharing the bread and the cup. God is incarnate in the sacrament.
Each time Communion is celebrated at Marsh Chapel anyone who seeks to be in closer relationship with Christ is invited to receive the sacrament, to encounter Christ. Yes, the sacraments are just as mysterious as the best of Hebrew wisdom literature, but just as the abstraction of the literature points to something very real and true, so do the sacraments convey a very real encounter with God. Perhaps today you may not see the hand which steadied Moses over the Red Sea, but perhaps you may feel Christ’s passion to be in relationship with you, just as a lover longs for her mate. God is working in the Sacrament, in ways beyond our Words.
The question of just how and where God acts in Communion has become a significant issue in recent months, even being featured in the Wall Street Journal. This summer, I was invited to participate in a consultation convened by The United Methodist Church on the subject of online communion. While no one would limit God’s ability to work in any circumstance, it has been the historic position of the church that communion is an incarnational act occurring in a specific place and time where we invite God to be present with us as a gathered community. The chapel continues to affirm this position and gladly offers to extend the celebration of the sacrament into the homes of those who are unable to participate in the liturgy in the chapel nave this day through the presence of our staff (or our clergy partners) throughout the upcoming week. Should you be listening and desire to receive and cannot attend the chapel service, or your local church, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or via the various other methods on our website, and we will be sure that the sacrament is made available to you.
Much of the Wisdom guiding the conversation regarding the sacrament and the eventual decision by our council of bishops to place a temporary moratorium on all online sacramental practice came from ecumenical partners outside The United Methodist Church. While the ecumenical movement often challenges us to see God and the church in new ways, ecumenical partners can also serve the role of the gentle teacher of Proverbs, admonishing us in our errors.
As we celebrate today the Wisdom of God incarnate in Christ and Christ incarnate in communion, I also give thanks for divine Wisdom which pervades the work of ecumenical cooperation.
I had the privilege of being present for the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, Korea, two months ago. God’s Wisdom still pervades the lumbering bureaucratic giant, which is the WCC. No, the Council has not realized equal representation among women and men at the assembly. Neither has it realized a proportionate percentage of Christians from the global South on its Central Committee, but God’s Word is heard and experienced in daily Bible study as church leaders from across the globe gather to share reflections on Scripture from their own traditions. God’s Word is manifest in the gathering of 150 young scholars, clergy and laity, gathered to share Wisdom with one another about the intentional formation of the next generation of church leaders, attune to the increasing need for ecumenical cooperation in living the mission of the church “To find the lost, heal the broken, feed the hungry, release the prisoner, rebuild the nations, and bring peace among peoples.”
But ecumenical cooperation really happens at the local level, when we partner with those from other traditions to bring out the best in one another. This morning in Dubuque, Iowa, St. Luke’s Singers from the local United Methodist Church have been invited to reprise Bethlehem’s Child Cantata at First Congregational United Church of Christ. The Wisdom of invitation energizes both communities and fosters further opportunities for cooperation. In this new year, I challenge you to see the Word incarnate in Christ and to search out ways to affirm God’s divine Word moving in your midst. Volunteer in an ecumenical or interfaith homeless initiative, like the Huntington New York Interfaith Homeless Initiative, where churches and synagogues open their doors providing shelter and care for those without a roof in these bitterly cold months. Invite the church down the street to join you for your spring bazaar and make it a “real” neighborhood block party. Or journey with one of the several interns here at Marsh Chapel as they seek ways to build community across denominational lines which can divide us.
As we move from this season of Christmas into the new year, may you experience the Word incarnate in Christ, receive Christ in the sacrament today, and participate in the work of God’s Word around you today and everyday. Amen.
~Rev. Soren Hessler, Chapel A
Matthew 2: 13-23
All in a Lifetime
Like other births, Jesus’ own occurs in the midst of trouble. He is hardly born before another dream befalls Joseph, the poor fellow, a man drenched in dreams, and commands the Holy Family to flee to Egypt. So the prophet had predicted.
Like most growth, Jesus’ own develops amid controversy. Herod fulfills another prophesy by slaying the children of Bethlehem, who then as now are in peril every hour. So the prophet had predicted.
Like much childhood, Jesus’ own transpires amid governmental wrangling, religious strife, and existential uncertainty. His family comes to make their home in Nazareth, down at the north end of the lake, and Jesus becomes a Nazorean. So the prophet had predicted.
Jesus is immersed in our full life. Jesus is our childhood’s measure. Day by day, like us he grew. He was little, weak and helpless. Tears and smiles like us he knew. And he feeleth for our sadness. And he shareth in our gladness.
The Christmas Gospel is this: God has taken human form, entered our condition, become flesh. For our present congregation, and especially come Christmas for our faithful radio congregants, listening from afar, we gladly announce this good news!
He came that we might have life and live it abundantly. In the next century after his birth, Irenaeus was to say, in summarizing his salvation: “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
The birth of Jesus penetrates all of the seasons of life.
Even dear, dour Ecclesiastes, who found so little to celebrate in life, at least made space, in his otherwise saturnine perspective, to honor time, the passage of time, the flow of time, and the regular return of times and seasons:
And a time for every purpose under heaven
As we pause between Christmas and the New Year (and so between past and future, youth and age, life and death, heaven and earth, this age and the age to come), perhaps we too can incarnationally celebrate the seasons of life. Look with me out at 2014, from a theological, liturgical, and religious perspective. Listen on radio, from afar, to the ecumenical voice of Marsh Chapel, wherein all the families of Christendom, and of the earth itself, find a real home. For to every denomination there is a season, and a time for every perspective under heaven! Here is what I mean. Every theological insight is here liturgically on site.
To Every Denomination there is a Season
You may not think much of the Presbyterians. They can be cold people, I know. ‘God’s frozen people’, said one. You may never have wanted to wade in the dark, icy water of Calvinist despair. You may not see yourself through the lens of a Bergman film. But there is a time and a season. When Ash Wednesday arrives in a couple months, we are all Presbyterians. Yes, if at no other point, on this day we do well to read Calvin. For we are dust, and to dust we do return, as both the Bible and Ignatius of Loyola taught (more on him in a moment). We do all sin, and do all fall short of the glory of God. We are fully mortal and utterly prone to harm others. In Calvin’s favorite, winning phrase, a personal delight of my own as well, we are, simply, “totally depraved”. His follower, Jonathan Edwards, described us as sinners in the hands of an angry God, held like filthy spiders over the pits of hellfire, and spared only by God’s strong wrist, who in holding us to save us, nonetheless averts his eyes from the hideous sight. Yikes! That is serious Ash Wednesday stuff! Really to sense this, you need the mind of John Calvin, the voice of Jonathan Edwards, and the heart of John of Patmos. I admit, it is not a happy creed, but it is a sober one. As my Scottish Presbyterian relatives from my mother in law’s side might say: “Bob, you are so often, so wrong!.” Marsh Chapel embraces Presbyterians, especially on Ash Wednesday. As we have done other years on Atonement and M Robinson and D Bonhoeffer and J Ellul, we will preach on Calvin this March, 2014. Buy a Presbyterian lunch early in Lent, and appreciate the gifts of their season.
Speaking of Lent, you may be thinking about the Jesuits. Perhaps you attended a Jesuit college, or teach in one. (I have taught in one, Lemoyne College, since 1989). Maybe you have wondered about Ignatius of Loyola, born in Pamplona, a Spaniard and a warrior, who was converted through illness to a beatific vision of Jesus, the Christ, Lord and Savior. Believe me, in Lent we are all Jesuits. In the season of Lenten discipline and preparation, you know, March of ice and snow and cold, we rely on some form of Jesuitical discipline. You may not precisely use his “Spiritual Exercises”, his daily devotion of silence and prayer and vision of Jesus. You may be sorry that he set loose the Inquisition and Index as tools of the Counter Reformation. You may feel he carried too much eye and too much military into a faith that is primarily auditory and irenic. In that, you would be a Lutheran, you Lutheran you. But in Lent, we are all soldiers in the Society of Jesus, ready to drill and train and prepare and exercise and submit. As Teresa of Avila put it, “even when we are thrown from the mud-cart of life, God is with us.” (Her voice we will need with our annual Marsh prayer brunch this Marathon Monday, April 21, 10am, here). Marsh Chapel embraces Jesuits, whether in the Vatican or on the street, especially in Lent. Everyone is a Jesuit, come Lent.
Since, though, you brought up Luther, we must also give credit where credit is due. Come Good Friday, when we survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died, our greatest gain we count but loss, and pour contempt on all our pride. I know that the ground at the foot of the cross is pretty level, but the view of the cross that is best is found from the perspective of the Lutherans, who stoutly recall, with Luther, crux sola nostra teologia. Lutherans! We love you at Marsh Chapel! The Cross alone, come Good Friday, is our teaching. Luther’s grave is not found in Lake Wobegon, but you can see it from there. We need to remember, especially on Good Friday, that all of our best intentions fall short. Especially when we think we have it just right, whatever it is, we invariably have it just wrong. It was Katie von Bora, a former nun, who in marrying Luther reminded him of his humanity and “brought out the most winsome traits” of the Reformer’s character. All our symbols, personal and familial and national and denominational, lie prostrate before the cross, all need right interpretation to avoid idolatry. Even the cross, our own central symbol, needs that interpretation, which is why we consent to a 25 minute sermon every week, even though the Baptists would rather shout and pray. Did we in our own strength confide, our winning would be losing! When it comes to the Cross, “nobody does it better” than Luther.
I have just mentioned the Baptists. This, you worry, brings the camel’s nose under the tent. They are always threatening to become the sideshow that ate up the circus, you say. You give them an inch, they will take a mile, you say. Speaking of miles, they can seem a mile wide and an inch deep, you say. They give anarchy a bad name, you say. But we must recognize that there is a season for everybody. Especially the Baptists. For in June, or late May, when the world is young again, we will celebrate Pentecost, the day of Spirit. Every week I know you try to invite one person to join you in the joy of Marsh Chapel. Baptists are embraced here. After 50 days after 40 days, that is 90 days from Calvin’s ashes, we pause again to remember that God is with us. Wesley died saying, “the best of all is, God is with us!” (Relax, I will get to the Methodists, in due time. Remember, we are gathering some Methodists here at 10am on May 22.) Beware your caution about Baptists. The Baptists are not all canoe and no paddle, not all axe-murder and no sheriff, not all fire and no hose, not all hat and no cattle, God love ‘em. Not All Spirit, whatever the Trinitarian Orthodox say. The Baptists may seem almost Unitarians of the Third Person of the Trinity! I tell you though, come Pentecost, that’s the day, Lord, dear Lord above, God Almighty, God of love, please look down and see my people through. When that wind of God is blowing (I do not refer to your preacher sermonizing), then you need some Baptists around to shake things up a little. Yes you do. Rembert Weakland said that Christians are always in a little bit of trouble. Isabella Van Wagener (Sojourner Truth) said, “That man says women can’t have as much rights as man, cause Christ wasn’t a woman. Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with him!” See what I mean?! You need to shout when the Spirit says shout!
The Orthodox do not do a lot of shouting on Sunday. Or on Monday. They happily meet in Marsh Chapel every Monday evening, and there is but little hollering. They’re not big shouters, except during their summer festivals, which happen to come, properly I think, about the time of Trinity Sunday. The more liturgical churches, Orthodox and Episcopalian and Catholic, remember this Sunday, Trinity Sunday, better than others. We love the Orthodox at Marsh, especially come Trinity Sunday. This is the season when we remember that God is more than Almighty Creator (no matter what the Muslims say) and that God is more than Lordly Savior (no matter what the Holy Rollers say) and that God is more than Mysterious Spirit (no matter what the Californians say). God is three, three, three Faces in one. Leave it to the Orthodox to remind us. Their wedding services last three hours. One for each Person of the Trinity, perhaps. When you come to June 15, go to a Greek festival and dance to the Triune God. Go ahead. Hug a Trinitarian in June! A few blocks down Commonwealth, at Arlington Street, the ghost of William Ellery Channing may be angry about it, but you go ahead and love your Trinitarian neighbor as your own self. As Constantine’s mother, Helena, may have said on her many 4th century pilgrimages to Jerusalem, “let us remember well those who have revered God before us.” Our national 2014 summer preaching series, on the theme, ‘The Gospel and Emerging Adulthood’—with preachers Nix, Walton, Romanik and others—will help us revere God in our time.
Now that we are knee deep in liturgy, let us honor the Roman Catholics. Every third member of our Marsh community today comes out of a Roman Catholic background. Our history, liturgy, nave, location and personality as a congregation have regularly made this move accessible to women and men of many different interests and backgrounds. On World Communion Sunday 2014 we will all be Catholic! Especially this year and next when we look back with joy on Vatican II, and its explosion of aggiornamento—renewal. Aggiornamento: I love the chance to say a word in Italian. You are listening on the radio to Marsh Chapel. With the universal church we here celebrate the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. With the universal church we here acknowledge one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism. With the universal church we here recognize the global character of the Christian communion. It has been the Roman Catholic church, more steadily than most, that has defended the human body in our time. It has been the Catholic church that has regularly regarded the poor and those of low estate. It has been the Catholic church that has kept the long history of Christendom before us. Our liturgical ties to the universal church should not be loosened by the very real doctrinal differences we have with Rome. John Wesley preached a whole sermon on extending an olive branch, a sign of peace, to the Romans. From our Anglican heritage, we are a moderate people. We know the value of an olive branch. On World Communion Sunday , come October, we shall affirm here at Marsh, one holy, catholic and apostolic church. We remember, among so many others, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose simple deeds of service to the poorest spoke volumes to her time.
Now, I just mentioned the Anglicans. Did you notice how the Anglican or Episcopal tradition found its way, on little cat feet, into our seasonal review? Typical. You will usually find an Anglican sidling up alongside you in discussion, listening and careful in discourse. To the Episcopalian, a smile comes before a frown, a “quite so” before a “not so”. Anglicans are like everybody else—only moreso. They revere the variety and diversity of the communion of saints. They agree to disagree, agreeably. They are peaceable people, nearly Quaker in character. Not for them the starch of Lutheran polemics, nor the bitter herbs of Calvinist dogma. A little sherry in the afternoon, a little Handel, a little wooly conversation—jolly good! Tallyho! Pip-pip! Cheerio! It is reason, rather than revelation alone, that has guided the Church of England, reason and a stiff dose of liturgy, including the veneration of Saints. One a soldier, one a priest, one slain by a fierce wild beast. On All Saints Day, we are all Anglicans. (And on Halloween, too!!!). Marsh Chapel loves Episcopalians. They are princes of peace, these sons and daughters of George III. They are optimistic people! Said Queen Victoria, “we are not interested in the possibilities of defeat”.
Real peace, the waiting and quiet of peace in the heart, however, are ultimately the province of our Pennsylvanian neighbors. In Advent, you are a Quaker through and through. Oh, you worship God. You know that in heaven we will be greeted by St Peter, not by Benjamin Franklin; that we will walk the golden streets, not Market Street in Philadelphia; that we will hear the angelic choir not the Liberty Bell; that we are disciples first and citizens second. Still, the city of brotherly love, only a few hours south, the American home of the spiritual descendents of George Fox, that Quaking Englishman, is the home of a radical quest for peace, a waiting for peace, a longing for peace, a season of quiet that is utterly Quaker in nature. “I have called you Friends”, said our Lord. I tell you, when you have truly felt the power of the Society of Friends, you will be as ready for the peace of Advent as you were prepared for the discipline of Lent by the Society of Jesus. It is enough to make you sing like a Methodist! The Quakers may not have been always as militarily committed as others may have liked. In faith, they may have stepped aside when others had to step forward. Still, it was to them that Ben Franklin turned at the end of his life, in 1792, to implore the young nation to jettison slavery, and they alone, prescient and right, stood by him. In Advent, we all are Philadelphia Quakers, eating Cheesesteaks and twinkies and sculling on the Scuykill River. We all await peace. We remember Mother Ann Lee and the shaking Quakers singing, “in truth simplicity is gain, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed; to turn, turn will be our delight, til by turning, turning, we come round right.”
Do you suspect that we have saved the best for last? For come December 2014 it will be Christmastide, again. Sing we now of Christmas, Noel, Noel! A song greets the dawn. It is the singing of the birds before daybreak that heralds a new morning, and it is the singing of the church of Christ, in season and out, that heralds a new creation. You are here to invite somebody to come to worship with you in 2014. So you will ring the bell, sing the song, tell the tale of Christmas. Christmas means invitation. The birds sing while it is still dark, and the church sings while sin remains. People do change, for the better, even when we are reluctant to notice. Emerson: the human being is convertible. To come to Christmas, truly to come to Christmas, you must come singing. In church, in the shower, at prayer meeting, in the choir, carolling, at youth group, by yourself. To sing is to be a Methodist. A singing Methodist, as our common speech declares. All sing, but none so sweetly. All sing, but none so vibrantly. All sing, but none with a list of rules about how to do so pasted in the front of a hymnal, whose reproduction every generation is the church equivalent of world war 3. All sing, but none with the theological bearing of singing with the Wesleys. To sing the Wesley hymns is to plant one’s standard upon the field of battle and roar: let the games begin! And what shall we sing? Carols of course. And which carols. Those of the English tradition of course. And which of these? There is but one of the first rank. It is the doctrine of the Incarnation, more than those others from Crucifixion to Resurrection, which so marks the people called Methodist. The primitive church told two stories of Jesus, that of his death (Holy Week and Easter) and that of his birth (Advent and Christmas). You must sing both, not just one, or the other. So the Wesley’s adored the Gospel of John, and “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”. So they hoped for a new creation, finished, pure and spotless. (I love my church with all my heart, even in the teeth of all our difficulties.) So they built churches, great and beautiful, but just for appetizers to the real meal—orphanages, mission societies, colleges, universities, medical schools, hospitals, including 128 US schools and colleges, with Boston University leading the parade. So Susanna Wesley bore 20 children, 17 of whom survived, one of whom, John, died saying, “the best of all is—God is with us!”, another of whom, Charles, gave us the gospel at Christmas:
Hail the Sun of Righteousness
Light and life to all He brings
Risen with healing in his wings
Mild he lays his glory by
Born that we no more may die
Born to raise the us from the earth
Born to give us second birth
Hark the herald angels sing!
Glory to the Newborn King!
Can you hear this? It begs a hearing. If you do, I challenge you, call you to a resolution: find a church in 2014! Worship God once a week next year! Join us here at Marsh Chapel! And bring a friend with you!
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
“He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word, ‘Follow me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.” (A Schweitzer, QHJ, 389).
In 1978, barely married one year, Jan and I were living in a tiny apartment, too small even for a piano, under the wings of Riverside Church NYC. Jan worked as a secretary in the Interchurch Center, the ‘God Box.’ To help finance the operation I was working at night as a security guard, studying for my afternoon classes and making rounds from 11pm -7am, then sleeping until noon. Near Christmas, Jan had a day off, and went shopping, by accident leaving our apartment door ajar. I awoke about 11am to see a poor street woman standing over me, with a knife and rosary beads. Somehow she had passed the receptionist and found her way in. I hoped the rosary beads meant more to her than the knife. But seeing her I shouted. She promptly raced into the bathroom and locked the door. About noon Jan came home to find police cars and a crowd outside McGiffert Hall. ‘Your husband was down here in his pajamas’ one said. ‘Really?’, Jan replied. “Police are up in your apartment’ one said. ‘Really?’ Jan replied. ‘There is a woman in your apartment too’ one said. ‘Really?’ Jan replied. ‘She is taking a bath up in your bathroom’ one said. ‘Really?’ Jan replied. That Christmas I think I was meant to receive a lifetime, vivid reminder of the poor—the street cast, the mentally ill, the drug harmed, the urban lost—the poor. The poor, like the Shepherds abiding in the field.
In 1980, with one child asleep upstairs, and one on the way to his birth three months later, we sat down in a small Ithaca parsonage for a Christmas Eve dinner. Services were over. Snow was falling, heavy, snow on snow. The hillside Warren Drive was all white. The baby grand piano sat silent next to us. Jan went up to check the child. All of a sudden, a large four-door sedan careened down the hill, turned sideways, nearly flipped, and smashed into the guard rail, just feet from our dining room. Out stumbled three natives of the subcontinent of India. Waiting for a truck, they sat with us, and ate a little and drank some tea. ‘They look like the three wise men”, Jan whispered. Dark, darker, and darkest—Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior. It takes a while to get a truck on Christmas Eve. When he did arrive, the driver gave evidence of Christmas cheer. He was a jolly, happy soul. ‘They look like wise men from the east’ he said. That Christmas I think I was meant to receive a lifetime, vivid reminder of the globe—the 6 billion siblings on 7 continents and myriad tongues—the globe. The Wise Men 3, bowing before the Christ.
In 1983, on Christmas Eve day, in the drafty living room of the Burke NY parsonage, an hour south of Montreal, with two children asleep for nap, and one on the way to his birth seven months later, we stood beside the baby grand piano for a wedding. A farm hand and his girlfriend, living up the road in a trailer, with the minister’s wife as witness, musician, caterer, and greeter, took their vows after carols and before cookies. As the rings were exchanged the two ostensibly napping children peered out from the stairwell. Leaving, he gave me four dollars. They were going for lunch to celebrate at the Cherry Knoll diner. They had nothing, and they had everything. It was a sort of Norman Rockwell scene—and aren’t these all? Rockwell has finally come into his artistic kingdom, this year, 2013, at last honored as real artist. But that Christmas I think I was meant to receive a lifetime reminder of the mystery of marriage against a background of rural life—farm work, cattle, livestock, milking, the good earth—farm life. Mary and Joseph and the utter mystery of birth.
In 1988, 25 years ago this weekend, we left our children by the piano with a sitter, and went by foot, through the snow, to see the Syracuse Orangemen play basketball. The game was interrupted with the stark announcement of a new tragedy, the crash of Pan Am flight 103 in Lockerbie Scotland. Neighbors of ours, students, and other students from other schools perished in what in retrospect was a harsh harbinger of further such acts of violence to come in 1995 and 1998 and 2001 and 2013. I looked again at the Christmas sermon preached later that week, an offering drenched in sorrow. SU Chancellor Melvin Eggers I believe never really recovered from the crash. Maybe none of us has. Twelve years later, dropping our son off for college at Ohio Wesleyan, I chanced to meet a man with deeply sunken eyes, who, as it happened, was the head of SU study abroad that year. That Christmas I think I was meant to receive a warning about the way the world would change in the decades to follow, and a call to gentleness in an age of violence. Rachel is still weeping for her children.
In 1992, we wrapped presents beside the piano, to give to a father and children on Dell Street, in the Westcott Street neighborhood, assigned to our church by the rescue mission. The dad we knew as a pizza deliverer. The 6 year old was in our son’s class. Both were names Stanley Grobsmith, senior and junior. Our son had been to a birthday party in their very modest home. We had left him off for an hour or two. Dad brought his three children to worship, sitting in the back pew, those weeks near Christmas. He was a boxer, a single father. That winter he was arrested for murder—I pass over the gruesome details—and hung himself in jail. We were committed to city ministry, to work with the urban poor, to rebuilding a city church, to teaching in city schools. But we were chagrined to realize the danger we had placed our son in. That Christmas I think I was meant to receive a lifetime, bone chilling reminder of violent evil—murderous, wild, ever present, harsh, sinful wrong—violent evil. Herod on the hunt, from whom the wise fled, going home by another way.
In 2005, on Christmas Day, and following 5 Rochester Christmas Eve services and 1 Christmas morning, Jan and I stopped up the street to visit Lucille Burke. She had been in surgery mid-week, and now was home, we were told. A round faced, elderly, Bible studying, daughter of a Methodist minister, she would stop sometimes and listen to the piano lessons in our living room. I saw Throckmorton’s Gospel Parallels on her shelf. With wide eyes—hers and ours—she told us her hospital experience. On the day of surgery, she heard her name called, prepared herself in body and spirit, lipstick and prayer, and saw the stretcher coming. It came right to her room and then went right on by, to the room next door, inhabited by a non responsive patient. They took her in place of Lucille, even though Lucille rang bells and waved and called out. Fortunately, before the wrong knee was replaced, someone saw the confused woman’s wrist band, and brought her back, and took Lucille up for surgery. That Christmas morning we offered a prayer of thanks and talked about malpractice. I thought, walking home, about the rarity of physicians’ malpractice and how at most its effects last one lifetime. I also thought about metaphysical malpractice, bad theology as opposed to bad surgery, and recognized it lasts three generations at least. That Christmas I think I was meant to receive a lifetime, sobering reminder of metaphysical malpractice, and its multi-generational endurance. Sober John the Baptist, winnowing fork in hand, separating theological wheat from spiritual chaff. More on this in the sermon coming January 26, 2014.
At Christmas we are reminded to learn with the Shepherds about the poor, with the Magi about the globe, with Mary and Joseph about the mystery of marriage, with Rachel about weeping, with Herod about violence, and with John the Baptist about metaphysical malpractice. We learn from our own experience. We learn in our own experience. Christmas is about incarnation, about divine presence, about the word made flesh, about spirit in life. We learn from our own experience, as, one Christmas, Albert Schweitzer did say:
He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word, ‘Follow me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.’ (QHJ, 389).
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
The birth of Christ places before us a new possibility.
We can live in a new way.
“Christ is alive and goes before us, to show and share what love can do. This is a day of new beginnings. Our God is making all things new”.
You can continue to live in the old way.
Or you can live a different life, beginning today.
Paul’s Christmas Gospel
Paul of Tarsus rarely is mentioned at Christmas. He introduces himself this morning, to the Romans and to us, in our first lesson. He never saw Jesus and knew almost nothing of the birth. Or of birth. Of Christmas, he says only: “born of a woman, born under the law”. (Gal. 4: 4 When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons) A human birth, still in the dark shadow of religion.
Paul is our earliest, best witness to the primitive Christian church. Yet he says nothing about any of the things we take for granted in this season: Mary, Joseph, manger, Bethlehem, shepherds, Kings, Herod, Rachel weeping.
In fact, I have ruminated a little about how Paul might have approached our reading from Matthew 1: 18-25, composed some thirty years after Paul’s own (legendary) death in the Roman coliseum. How would the celibate rabbi have thought about Mary and a complicated birth? How would the patriarchal first century Jew have thought about the authority vested in women? How would Paul have interpreted Mary’s calling, vocation, blessing and authority?
More basically, more biologically, how would a man like Paul have connected, if at all, with the multiple nursery scenes found in the first three gospels?
You will admit, if pressed, that there are few things more bemusing than listening to men talk about child birth. All the gospels and almost 2000 years of Christmas sermons fall beneath this judgment. What do we know about it?
How can men–how could Paul–possibly fathom the pain, change, and transformation of childbirth? Especially when this birth is not just birth but–Incarnation?
Paul has had a hard ride for the past 50 years. In an age of civil rights, his common first century passive acceptance of slavery in Philemon has not gone unnoticed. In age of revolution in the status and role of women, his direction to the Corinthians—albeit truly a matter of order not gender—that women should not speak in public has not gone unnoticed. In an age of gradual acceptance of gay rights, his flat rejection of homosexuality in Romans 1 has not gone unnoticed. In an age of fuller acquaintance with the abuses of power, his later command to the Roman church to be subject to governing authorities has not gone unnoticed. In an age of democracy, dialogue and vote, his apostolic, authoritarian claim to have the Mind of Christ has not gone unnoticed. In short, Paul has been persona non grata for 50 years. From one angle he is seen as a confederate, chauvinistic, homophobic, patriarchal, authoritarian, hierarchical, Tory crank.
Which brings us to Christmas 2013 and the stunning news that Paul, more than all, “gets it”! Hear his self-introduction from Romans today and behold: Paul understands the Gentle Christmas Gospel. Better than virtually any other piece of the New Testament Paul names the Christmas Gospel with utter precision in another of his letters, his earliest, 1 Thessalonians 2:7
I bring this up on Christmas Sunday to spank out a claim on you. If Paul can “get it”, if Paul can receive the grace of Christmas, there is hope for everybody. Even me, even you. Especially for you this morning if you feel at some distance from the Christmas traditions, the old stories, the church’s habits and patterns. Especially if you feel, that is, a little on the outside. Especially if all this imagery—shepherds, kings, Mary, Herod, the Baptist—does not appeal to you, and you feel a bit on the outside. Actually, in the main, Christmas is all about God’s love for the outside.
In the earliest piece of our New Testament, 1 Thessalonians, as he describes his happy relationship with one of his first churches, Paul offers us a glimpse of the gospel. It is Christmas testimony that we can live in a new way!
This Paul, this same confederate, chauvinistic, homophobic, patriarchal, hierarchical Tory crank, has been given the grace to live in a new way, and to show others the same.
The spirit of the Risen Christ has changed Paul. From Pharisee to freedom fighter. From inquisitor to preacher. From religion to faith. From law to gospel. He was been given the “wings of the morning”. There is no other way to interpret his self-designation, a Christmas nametag if ever there was one, here in 1 Thessalonians.
Paul refers to himself and his way of living as “gentle as a nurse”. Gentle? Paul? Apparently so, at least now and then. And then, “nurse”. The word does not refer to white gowns, medical degrees, stethescopes, or medications. It means the other kind of nurse and nursing, the nurse-maid. We learn this, even without reference to the Greek, from the rest of the verse, a “nurse caring for her children”. The word, ηπιον, means wet nurse or nursing mother. The image so jarred an early copier that he added an extra letter to one text to “clean it up” and change the meaning. Paul is staggeringly clear, however. He describes himself as like a wet-nurse! Paul, that is, is referring to his own new way of living as a kind of nursing, as intimate, physical, personal, vulnerable, self-giving. As in, nursing a child.
I find this astounding, that one who could say of his opponents in Galatia that they should castrate themselves (surely a remnant of the old Paul) could understand himself by analogy with a mother and child in the moment of nursing. If the birth of Christ can move Paul that far, how much more can Christmas do for you and me!
A generation ago, I discovered, James Clarke had a similar insight:
Here is conversion in great might. It is easy to think of Paul as the missionary who made Europe and Asia his parish and lifted Christianity out of its Palestinian cradle; as the warrior who fought the good fight of faith and whose sword seldom rested in its scabbard; as the statesman who conceived vastly and executed daringly; as the theologian who handled the huge imponderables and grand peculiarities of the faith with ease and judgment; as the personality, powerful and decisive, who cut his signature deeply into the life of his time, and beside whom his contemporaries were but dwarfs; as the mystic who beheld the faraway hills of silence and wonder, and whose great theme was “union with Christ”. But it strains the imagination to picture him, who was so imperious, in the gentle and tender role of nursemaid. Truly there is no limit to the converting power of God in Jesus Christ. (IBD loc cit)
Yet Clarke climbs only half the mountain. Yes, it does astound our imaginations to picture Paul as a mother with a child at the breast. What is doubly astounding, however, is to realize, fully to intuit, that Paul understood himself this way! That Paul, at his most converted, could see his life in a new way, a radically new way, as different from all he had lived before as a nursemaid is different from an imperious religionist.
Paul probably did not know the account in our reading from Matthew 1 today, with its picture of Mary and Jesus, or its siblings in the other gospels. He may not have had any more idea than we do about the exact nature and detail of these birth narratives. I confess that I think he would have been somewhat surprised by their imaginative peculiarity.
But the meaning of Christmas he fully knows.
Your Christmas Gospel
And so may you, ESPECIALLY, if you are not easily or closely enthralled by magic stories, birth miracles, speaking wombs, nursery rhymes, and angel voices. Paul hears the truth of it all, and his life changes. Yours can too.
Paul may not have known the Christmas stories we do, but his pastoral life embodied the incarnate love of God in Christ, physical intimate, personal, vulnerable self-giving, gentle as a nurse-maid.
Yours can too. You can live in a new way. You can.
It is the way of the turned cheek, the offered cloak, the second mile. It is the way of love for those who are not lovely. It is the way of the love of enemies. It is the way of forbearance. It is the way of tenderhearted forgiveness. It is the way of prayer for those who persecute. It is the way of God, who is kind to God’s ungrateful and selfish children. Gentle as a nurse…
In a year of violence past, we may be ready to hear this. After Newtown. After Marathon Monday. After Syria. After a long train and strain of losses, more personal and private.
Christmas gives birth to the daily, very real possibility, starting again for you at noon, the real potential that you can live in a new way. Christmas gives birth to the life and death decision for or against Jesus, for the new path or the old.
If Paul can “get it”, all can. This is the change that God works (GOD works) in the human heart. The God who said “let light shine out of darkness…” It is the gift of faith. Faith comes by hearing. Hearing by the word of God.
We live in age of violence, even global and extreme violence. But this is Christmas. With Matthew we may marvel at the mystery of Christ. With Paul we may practice the partnership of the Gospel, living as gentle as a nurse with her children.
We can live in a new way. The world does not lack for promise, but only for a sense of promise.
First. We can live as those who look forward to a gentler world community. In a year that included Newtown and Marathon Monday, we can afford to listen to the strange language of the Bible, and of Paul. I mean all of us here this morning, liberal and conservative, hawk and dove. We can all share the horizon of hope for peace on earth, good will to all. We can look out for ways to “soften the collisions” that will come in our time. As Inman says, in the novel Cold Mountain, life is riddled with “endless contention and intractable difference”. Collisions are virtually inevitable. But they can be softened.
My guide here is the great British philosopher Isaiah Berlin:
Collisions, even if they cannot be avoided, can be softened. Claims can be balanced, compromises can be reached: in concrete situations not every claim is of equal force—so much liberty, so much equality; so much for sharp moral condemnation, so much for understanding a given human situation; so much for the full force of law, and so much for the prerogative of mercy; for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless. Priorities, never final and absolute, must be established.
Of course social or political collisions will take place; the mere conflict of positive values alone makes this unavoidable. Yet they can be minimized by promoting and preserving an uneasy equilibrium, which is constantly threatened and in constant need of repair—that alone is the precondition for decent societies and morally acceptable behavior, otherwise we are bound to lose our way. A little dull as a solution you will say? Yet there is some truth in this view.
Second. More than you know, disciple, you transform the culture around you with every act, every choice. I saw recently 900 people stand, without command, to honor the Hallelujah Chorus. They came to worship the Messiah, in their own secular way, the babe, the son of Mary.
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low.
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd.
And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.
And all flesh shall see it together.
Since by one man death came, so by one man shall come the resurrection of the dead. (my favorite)
Blessing and honor and glory and power be unto him!
So they receive Christ. Here is a door held. There is a criticism softened. Here is a preparation made. There is a courtesy extended. Here is a listening ear. There is a gesture of welcome.
As we follow our course let us not become coarse.
I remember a Christmas more than thiry years ago, when we lived in NYC. Lily Tomlin once produced a single actor play. One night a street person stumbled into the theater and was treated roughly. She made the paper by stopping her performance, guiding the man to center stage and quietly addressing the audience: “Let me introduce you to a fellow human being.
At our best, Marsh Chapel and this community both set a fine example of acculturated gentility. (That is a compliment, by the way. Just so you know.) It is not just what you do that counts, it is how you do it.
At our best, we can live together, watching over one another in love, and treating one another “as gently as a nursemaid”. Men and women both. I can be even more personal. The Christmas Gospel in its Pauline cast directs me as a minister. It gives me the courage to be, to be a pastoral administrator, and to be so with gentle care. Now I will admit that the phrase, “pastoral administrator” is something of an oxymoron, two words that contradict each other. Like jumbo shrimp or United Methodist. Either you are pastoral or you are administrative, tender or tough. But here is Paul, the Great Tough Apostle to the Gentiles, identifying his way of being with that of a woman, a tender mother, breast feeding her kids. That means time spent. That means some tolerance for untidiness. That means a willingness to admit imperfection, some fruitful slobbery sloppiness. That means a habit of being that is more rounded than rectangular, more organic that engineered, more maternal than mechanical. That means to worry when things aren’t perfect and not to listen when others want them immediately perfect. Life is messy. Community life is particular messy. That means a willingness to go the second and third mile, as you would for your infant. That means risking getting bitten. That means burping and wiping and holding. And especially that means a fierce focus on the future of now young life! That sounds like hard work! Manger work. Nursery work. New Creation work.
Third. Christmas too can become a season as gentle as a nurse. Someone wrote, mimicking, yes, Paul, in 1 Cor 13:
If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights and shiny balls, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another decorator.
If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another cook.
If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home, and give all that I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.
If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes, attend myriad holiday parties and sing in the choir’s cantata but do not focus on Christ, I have missed the point.
Love stops cooking to hug the child.
Love sets aside decorating to kiss the spouse.
Love is kind, though harried and tired.
Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has Christmas china and table linens.
Love doesn’t yell at the kids to get out of the way, but is thankful they are there to be in the way.
Love bears, believes, hopes, endures all things, and never fails.
Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust. Even that new motorboat that someone might give you will one day retire. The gift of love will endure.
A Time to Choose
This is the spiritual change that God (and God alone) works in the human heart. “Born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth”. Here are the birth pangs of the new creation.
Are you ready to live in a new way?
For their parts, the ancients were caught off guard. So the Kings meandered, the shepherds shuddered, the cattle were low and lowing. There was no ready expectation of Jesus, a poor Messiah. No, there was no prepared expectation for God touching earth in a manger. “A smoking cradle”, said Karl Barth, is all we have of Christmas. How about you? Are you ready for Christmas, for a gentle Christmas?
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel