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Backstories of Easter: Creation, Sin, Death, and Resurrection

Saturday, April 15th, 2017

 Matthew 28:1-10

Romans 6:3-11

    The resurrection discovery accounts are flashy made-for Hollywood events: thunder and lightning, an angel or two (depending on the Gospel), frightened women who hold up better than the guards, the nearly fatuous admonitions to be not afraid, Jesus accepting worship of his person for the first time (or, in the case of John’s Gospel, ducking away from worship), instructions for the women to tell Jesus’s “brothers” (no mention of sisters) to go wait for him in Galilee or, again in the case of John’s Gospel, in Jerusalem. This Vigil time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday morning is a good venue to cool those stories and think about the backstories that make them more than flashy episodes. Holy Saturday, which this Vigil concludes, symbolizes being lost, with the Vigil a search for finding ourselves.

The most important backstory is that of creation, of God the creator relating to the world of creatures. Matthew’s Gospel, with its special attention to the Jewish background of Christianity, would suppose creation as described in the two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis. Paul would have those in mind too, but insisted that the Gentiles also knew about creation and should be held accountable for failing to live up to what this entails morally and religiously. The force of the backstory of creation is to understand the difference between God as creator and human beings as creatures. God as creator is due our pure worship and gratitude.

The second most important backstory for the events of Jesus’s death and resurrection is human sin. Sin is one of the most popular topics of Christian thinking, preaching, and practice. Since the beginning of the Christian movement, the content of sin has been a matter of contention. By the time of the Desert Fathers in the fourth and fifth centuries, sins of all sorts were classified as deriving from seven primary and deadly ones: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. This theological preoccupation with the seven deadly sins runs from John Cassian, born in 360, to Robert Allen Hill, who last Sunday gave us a litany of them complete with instructions for how to commit them. In our own time, the question whether homosexual and transgender lives are sinful has preoccupied Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Put aside issues of the content of sin for the moment, however, and look to the root of sin.

According to the Bible, the root of sin is idolatry in the particular sense of human beings wanting to be like God, confusing the difference between the Creator and the creatures.  Satan tempted Eve and Adam to eat the apple by telling her that it would make her like God in knowing the difference between good and evil. Now we might think that the knowledge of good and evil is itself a good thing. Indeed, should we not try as much as possible to be like God? Christianity has a long tradition including John Wesley of treating sanctification as theosis, becoming as like to God as we can. Not so in the view of Genesis. In the primal innocence of Eden we could just do what comes naturally so long as we are proper creatures, obedient to God in our creaturely roles. To our late-modern ears, obedience to God’s command not to eat the apple sounds arbitrary. But I take God’s command to be a metaphor in a rule-bound culture for accepting the human place as creatures in relation to the creator God. We find ourselves in situations where our alternative choices have different values. What we choose actualizes those values. Moreover, our choices determine our moral characters as the ones who choose the values we chose. Because we can know a lot about the different relevant kinds of goods and evils, if we just choose naturally so as to bring about what seems the best, we do not have to know anything special about good and evil, only about responding well to the world in which we are created. The Daodejing says something like this in proclaiming the innocence of following the Dao and warning that when concerns for righteousness arise, you know you have already departed from the Dao. Adam’s and Eve’s choice to disobey God’s command was the first level of rejecting their creaturely status, and their desire to have God’s knowledge of good and evil was their second level of rejection. It lost them the innocence of living in Eden doing fine by doing what comes naturally. Significant idolatry is not worshipping statues. It is putting ourselves in the place of God, or trying to do so. Once you do that, everything goes wrong.

St. Paul began his epistle to the Romans by condemning idolatry as the root of sin. You remember that God punished idolaters by giving them same-sex passions. Paul had no conception of homosexuality as a gender orientation. For him homosexual passions were neither a condition of birth nor a matter of choice, as we frame the debate today: they are God-given. The reason he thought it was a punishment was that he and his culture believed that all sex acts require one party to be dominant and the other submissive. Men were supposed to be dominant and women submissive. Like many cultural habits, this one had come to seem natural. Therefore, for Paul, same sex passions and acts caused suffering as unnatural because one of the men had to submissive like a woman and one of the women had to be dominant like a man. So he thought.These acts were not sinful: they were caused by God and they constituted punitive suffering for the idolaters God afflicted. What is important for Paul is the idolatry that brings down God’s wrath in the form of imposed same-sex passion. You see how complicated the discernment of the content of sin is.

Nevertheless, let’s return to the backstories. What about death, the precondition for resurrection? In the Genesis story, Adam and Eve were created to be mortal in the Garden of Eden. God wanted to keep them that way. So after their eyes were open to good and evil, God and his fellow gods banished them from Eden in order to keep them away from the tree of life that would have given them immortality. The gods wanted to keep immortality for themselves and mortality as the natural state of humans. Here was another instance of Adam and Eve wanting to be like God, a matter of idolatry, or so the gods feared. The Genesis story is delightfully fanciful in its anthropomorphic mythic depiction of God and his divine friends. Expelled from Eden, our situation is like trying to make do with some flawed knowledge of good and evil, with responsibilities for running things as best we can, sort of like minimally competent kings trying to run a country under difficult circumstances. You see why, as such klutzy kings, we are prone to pride, greed, lust, envy, wrath, sloth and all the other sins that follow from these.

Between the time of the composition of Genesis and the first century, significant cultural changes had taken place. Whereas polytheism lurked around the edges of the former, Judaism (including Christianity) in the first century was solidly monotheistic. Whereas covenantal fidelity to Yahweh oriented Judaism in the former, apocalyptic thinking from Persia colored the latter. Whereas human beings were assumed to be rightly mortal and created that way by God in the time of Genesis, many people in the first century, especially Pharisees, believed in immortality, a family of notions sponsored by Hellenism. Diverse immortality assumptions included reincarnation of one soul through many lives, the natural immortality of a soul separable from the body that had to go somewhere after death, to hell if not heaven, or purgatory, or limbo, and also the notion that people naturally die and that some of them but not all get resurrected to new life, for instance if they believe in Jesus. Some people believed that, although people naturally die, a just God needs to resurrect everyone so as to punish the wicked in hell along with rewarding the good in heaven. All these backstories about life after death were in the air in the first century; they are not consistent but I doubt many people sorted them out. The reincarnation theory did not go far in Christianity, though all the others did beginning in the first century and remaining through the middle ages up until the Enlightenment.

In the early years of Christianity, the rhetorical center of gravity thus took death as the ultimate evil and new life after death as the greatest good, or salvation. Seeking to be immortal like God was not idolatry for the Christians, as it was for the audience of Genesis, but rather the very center of the desire for salvation. What then was idolatry for the early Christians? It was the twin failure to recognize God as almighty creator and the failure to accept the humility of creatures. As to humility, Jesus preached against hypocrisy, pride of place, and the failure to for the least of people. As to God as creator, Jesus preached the sovereignty of the creator beyond good and evil, sending sun and rain on the unjust as well as the just. Of course, Jesus preached many other things not easily compatible with these points, and Dean Hill has a whole year until the next Easter Vigil to straighten them out.

When it came to understanding Jesus’ death, the early Christians made a mighty theological move. They associated Jesus with God, as the only Son of God, second Person of the Trinity, at God’s right hand in the highest heaven except for a descent to Earth as a slave—a whole host of images that the fourth and fifth centuries tried to sort, unsuccessfully. The early Christians construed Jesus’s death as the death of the real God, except that the creator, having created death as well as life, could not be ended with death. God conquered death by raising the divine Jesus from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection was different from all those other resurrections performed by the prophets and Jesus himself, as well as the early disciples. The resurrection of Jesus was God’s resetting the default on creation. In God’s creation, life triumphs over death. Death as the worst evil was broken. For believers, believing in Jesus as the crucified Son of God triumphantly raised from the dead removes idolatry. To know Jesus as God is to know God as God and not to confuse our own pretensions with God. Paul and many other early writers thought that believers, no longer being idolaters, would themselves be raised from the dead, either soon, as Paul thought, or later, or at some apocalyptic ending of the world. Believing Christians do continue to sin, as we do. But sin does not bind us with any idolatry. Paul said Christians continue to sin more or less out of habit and should just change their ways; get on with sanctification. Sanctification is not salvation, which is the promise of immortality; it is rather how to live our quotidian lives without being idolatrous. Salvation is the faith in Jesus as the true God, faith that destroys idolatry and restores a right relation to God. This faith is not our own work, said Paul, but comes from God’s grace as part of creation. Christians have long disagreed about whether, and if so why, God graciously gives faith to some and not others; let’s skip that problem for now.

Skipping over those problems, with those backstories we can now see how the early Christians, including Paul and Matthew, centered salvation on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul pointed out that Jesus’s cosmic restoration of a non-idolatrous way for us to live before God and with neighbors is open to us with our participation in Jesus’s death and resurrection. He said, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” We have new life. Paul also said, “The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ.” Matthew’s Gospel ends with Jesus commissioning the disciples to go live the life of preaching that baptism. Our celebrations of Easter are glorious songs in the lyrics of death and resurrection.

Nevertheless, our times are different from those of the early Christians. We know too much about how all the functions of the human mind, soul, and spirit depend upon the brain. Many today find it difficult to take seriously the immortality assumptions of the first century, except in some symbolic way. We also know too much about other religions with similar avatars and other ways of understanding saved life to be comfortable with the attribution of unique cosmic status to Jesus of Nazareth, except in symbolic ways. We are somewhat suspicious that concentration on salvation as an afterlife distracts our proper attention as creatures to deal with the issues in the world God has created for us. The triumphalism of some literal understandings of Christ’s victory over death looks fishy in light of unhealed trauma and continuing tragedy.

Therefore, we look for the symbolic ways in which the death and resurrection of Jesus can convey the gospel that gives us new life, free from idolatry and properly attentive to our creaturely responsibilities. The resurrection of Jesus to new life, however we might balk at the cosmic metaphors, sharply symbolizes that God creates everything, and for no reason of a worldly sortt. The death of Jesus construed as God symbolizes that within God’s creation God creates death too, and death does not destroy God’s creation. The comfort of the resurrection of Christ and the promise of ours does not consist in more life after death, “more of the same” under the conditions of finitude; that really would not help. The comfort of the resurrection rather symbolizes that even with death, and with unhealed pains, sorrows, tragedies, failures, loss of young innocents, loss of lifetime innocence, and the failure to make a moral world– even with all that, the creation is good and the creator is to be praised. Celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection points to the peace that passes understanding. This peace accepts the world as we find it and our flawed efforts to live out our place. That peace accepts these flaws as part of our place. To expect perfection of ourselves is idolatry. To expect the creator to be like a just king and treat us better is idolatry. To expect the world to be just rather than a swirl of cosmic gasses clumping briefly to give us our ambiguous lives and morally freighted choices is idolatry. To construe God in our image, inflated to a perfect kingship, is idolatry. To celebrate the creator in the death and resurrection of Jesus is to rejoice in the fact that everything, whatever it is, comes from God’s creation. Our personal comfort is in the eternity of creation from which time derives and in which we dwell most concretely. We sometimes lose track of that eternity and try to reconstruct it as a temporal process of creation, which is idolatry. This leads to sin, despair, and spiritual death. But when we are reminded by Easter that God is the absolutely free creator of whatever is real, and that this includes us with our varied lives to live as well as we can, and that this is what we are created to be, then we have new life. We live with the joy of the salvation that bears all things including death and from which we can never be separated. We live with powerful courage to undertake the tasks of our watch without regard for winning. We live with the comfort and confidence of our eternal identities in the divine life. We can say to the world, Bring it on! Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

 -the Reverend Dr. Robert Neville 

The Call to Love

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Psalm 116: 1-2

Psalm 116:12-19

John 13: 1-17

John 13: 31b-35

     Usually, when you are about to be betrayed by someone, your natural response is not to wash their feet, or buy them food, or care about their well-being in any way.
If someone mocks you behind your back, your first thought is not to buy them froyo.
If someone steals your essay and says it is theirs, the last thing you look to do is offer to help them with another assignment.

If someone is about to sell you out to be executed on a cross, you likely won’t consider washing their feet.
And yet, here you see, in John 13, Jesus does that.

You might be able to brush it off if someone is being rude; there might be serious academic consequences if someone turns in the same assignment as you, but whether results are simply unpleasant or truly dire, we have an example from Jesus in John 13 that teaches us how to react to betrayal.

Both Jesus’s footwashing and the supper after creates the chance for renewal, the possibility for a fresh start. Jesus’s love and service extends even to those who are about to hand him over and deny him, and offers renewal even in the depths of betrayal.

In washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus appears to be in a position of little power even though he is the most powerful individual in the room. Through his service and dedication to others he evokes the power that makes Mary drop to her knees and use her hair to wash the feet of her savior. She sees that he is truly God. Jesus is The Word fulfilled. Jesus fulfills the purpose of the Law, and shows us God in action.

His action reflects the full manifestation of the Love of God, which seems weird and impossible for us to also reflect. Contemporary poet Jermaine Cole writes in his work “love is wanting more for someone than they want for themselves.” Taking this definition from Jermaine Cole, Jesus loves a lot. Jesus’s love wants more from us than we want from ourselves.  Jesus wants us to be able to love even those we don’t want to love. Despite his impending death, Jesus wants those who are about to fail him to love more. Jesus wants that of us, too.

The odd thing about the way Jesus is portrayed in John is that his actions seem not only weird to us, but they seem impossible. It’s hard to live like Jesus.

 I mean, like, can we do what He does? He’s Jesus. I am not Jesus.

This idea of being Christ-like seems impossible for anyone who is imperfect, and we as human beings are imperfect — at least I know I am. His actions seem unnatural, impossible, for us.

            So I am left with this internal conflict. I am called to live like Jesus, but I am not Jesus. I am just a simple, imperfect human being.

            But Jesus is also human. In this passage, he does very human things like spending time with friends, washing, and eating. He is a human being, and his actions tell a brighter, more beautiful tale about what it means to truly be human.

In making our beloved Christ more human in this passage, the author is not making a commentary by playing Jesus down. Rather, he is bringing all of humanity up. Despite all of this messiness and betrayal happening here, this passage is optimistic about humanity. It forces a tension about what is precisely impossible for humans. Is it really impossible? I mean, Jesus does say in John 14 “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” In believing in this optimism, we can genuinely attempt to live like Christ, and this is what the disciples are called to do.

      Jesus washes the feet of everyone present. The footwashing is an act of love that breaks down the barriers between Jesus and his disciples. Peter is so human; he isn’t able to see the big picture, to see who Jesus is and what he’s doing. But Jesus breaks down this barrier of misunderstanding. Judas is so human, because he succumbs to the pressure and gives in to weakness, pursuing the temporary instead of the eternal. Jesus breaks down this barrier of betrayal, and he performs the same act of love for Judas.

As Jesus cleanses their feet, he recognizes their humanity and loves them despite their failures. In many ways this action seems unimaginable. However, this love that Jesus exemplifies is what he calls us to show to a flawed world.

Though the love Jesus Christ shows to his disciples is a high standard there are moments when ordinary people can exhibit this love. These moments can take many forms, but they typically include the radical choice to love despite the boundaries between them

 

        1.2 miles of Commonwealth Avenue divide the students who live in West and East campus here at BU. In fact, the opposite sides of campus encompass very different lifestyles. East campus enjoys delicacies served by The Late Night Kitchen while West settles for lukewarm pitas served until 2 am. An East Campus student’s workout usually consists of running to the Fitness and Recreation center while West campus students prefer using the treadmills provided inside the facility. West campus residents generally set their alarms 30 minutes early in order to make it to their classes in CAS on time, whereas East Campus students roll out of bed and find themselves just outside of their classroom doors. At times, it seems as though students in East and West campus only share the distinction of being sleep-deprived scholars of Boston University. But it is here at Marsh Chapel, the midpoint of East and West campus, that we share a brief hour together on Sunday mornings. We meet in the middle of our differing residences, perspectives, and beliefs to share in love as a united body, just as Jesus did with his disciples.

        But what exactly do we mean by love? It is a powerful word but it is also ambiguous. In English, the word “love” encompasses affection, admiration, appreciation, attraction, infatuation, care, passion, and even friendship. English puts a lot of ideas under that single umbrella term love, but Greek, the language of the New Testament, has four words to describe different types of love. From the tenderness you feel for your sister or brother, who may drive you crazy once in a while, to the way you feel toward the friend who has known you since birth, remembering that one story you’d rather forget. To the physical and romantic attraction we feel for those we put a part of ourselves out there for. But the pinnacle of love is a term called agape. Agape refers to an unconditional love that flows between the Divine and humanity and transcends boundaries among people. When Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you, you should love one another,” he uses the word agape twice. The first time he uses it speaks to the unconditional love that Jesus has for his disciples, and by extension the love that the Divine has for all of humanity. The second time he uses agape, however, it takes on additional meaning. Now agape stands for an unconditional love between people as well, not just love from the Divine. When you think about it, Jesus’ last commandment to his disciples carries a difficult task with it: to love each other unconditionally, just as Jesus loved them. He is asking them to take something from their relationship with the Divine and apply it to their relationship with other people. This is difficult because human relationships are often messy. Each of us may love one another, but we also disagree with, misunderstand, and hurt each other. How can we love one another unconditionally, when the ones we are supposed to love might be people we don’t know, or even people who have hurt us?

      This kind of love can be the most difficult to spot on a regular basis, because so often it appears in small acts of kindness. It comes with students who stand out on the plaza on Fridays to give hugs to anyone who would like one. It manifests in a stranger taking time out of their day to help you when you’re injured, lost, or when you’ve dropped all your belongings on the ground. At the same time, agape appears in moments of deeper connection with people. It emerges when you sit down and listen to someone you strongly disagree with to have a conversation, and you both walk away with increased respect and understanding for each other. And perhaps even a changed perspective. Agape is the love that arises if you come to terms with someone you’ve had a falling out with years ago, and you both are able to forgive each other.

Agape is a love that respects, a love that listens, and a love that heals rifts between people.

Loving one another unconditionally can start with small actions, actions that respect the light and humanity that exists within all people. This could be anything from acknowledging the complaints of a coworker who always just seems to get on your nerves to simply smiling at people as you pass by them (something that is difficult to do in New England, I realize). These small actions can build to larger ones, such as starting a conversation with someone you haven’t spoken to in years, because their comments or actions have deeply hurt you in the past. Importantly, showing agape toward each other does not mean you love others unconditionally without loving yourself, nor does it mean that you should ignore or forget the harm that others have done to you in the past. Agape involves recognizing the humanity that exists in all people (yourself included), and caring about that humanity through your actions, however small they may be.

         Jesus gave his disciples a commandment, and with that commandment he gave them a challenge: how do you overcome potential conflict and pain that humans experience to show love for them? One tool that we have to overcome this challenge is our ability to understand one another’s emotions. Empathy helps us to take on someone else’s perspective, and in the process develop an understanding of what their experiences and emotions feel like. The word itself, when broken down, means “feeling in.” When you are empathizing with someone else’s experience, you are literally “feeling into” their perspective. In that process, you are attempting to acknowledge that they are a also a human being just like you with thoughts, feelings, insecurities, cares, and desires. You are feeling into the common humanity you share and the different experiences you and they have had, and in the process you are validating both. This is the part of agape that can heal divides between different people, while acknowledging those differences.

         This healing and transcending of divides was experienced by our colleague Kasey Shultz on her Alternative Spring Break trip this past March. She writes, “Over spring break, I traveled with 8 other BU students and one staff member to Macon, GA to work with an organization that performs housing repairs for elderly and disabled residents. The trip was meaningful in many ways but the thing that stands out to me the most is the way in which this trip bridged divides–divides within BU but also larger divides in society: Personally, as a second-semester senior, I don’t interact with sophomores, like, ever but by the end of the trip, I had spent more time in close proximity to the seven sophomores on the trip than I had in close proximity to some of my BU friends that I’ve known for years. We had students from both west and east campus, from Questrom and the College of Arts and Sciences, from the west and east coast. We also bridged more contentious gaps, as a group of liberal millenials from the Northeast worked with conservative baby boomers from the South. In our evening reflections as a group, we talked about how our stereotypes were being challenged and marveled at the extreme hospitality that we were experiencing. Throughout the week, those boundaries that we had clung to so fastidiously were dismantled one by one This trip reminded me that life is never black and white and that it’s a lot easier to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’ when we never get to know exactly who ‘them’ is.

In this passage from John, Jesus does not call us to tolerate, he does not call us to surround ourselves with people we agree with, he does not call us to stay in our comfort zones, he does not call us to try to improve the people around us–he calls us to love. And he does not call us to love ‘them’—he calls us to love one another. Because when we truly love—deeply and without reservation or judgment—those boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ melt away.”

          As made apparent by walking down Commonwealth Avenue and crossing the BU bridge, or even looking around here in the Nave, we are not one homogenous group of people. We have different backgrounds both ethnically and religiously. How does that play into love? Does it matter? Quite frankly, in an interreligious setting: absolutely.

Our limited ability to conceptualize the magnitude of our reach inhibits us from realizing that our Christian neighbors are just one street in a collective of neighborhoods that create a global religious community.

In the soon to be published “Free Text to Life: Religious Resources for Interreligious Engagement” Jennifer Howe Peace writes: “Love is a profound and remarkable resource for interfaith work. It often clusters with a whole host of other dispositions that enable authentic engagement across lines of difference: humility, curiosity, forgiveness and hope to name a few. It allows us to say, as this story illustrates, ‘I may not agree with you, but I love you so I’m listening.’”

           Love permeates the divide between groups. Loving someone selflessly does not mean you have to ignore or disregard past differences between you and them. You love them by acknowledging and taking on these differences in an attempt to understand them.

There are two extreme ways to deal with conflict or differences in understanding. There’s reacting with pure feeling — you know, where we love those for whom we feel love and we hate those for whom we don’t. Conflict and differences provoke strong emotions in us.

The other extreme is to just give up and not care at all. The differences between us and them are just too big and overwhelming, so why bother even acknowledging their existence? The conflict is too much, so it’s better to just avoid it.

These are the very human tendencies we have, and they both lead to stereotyping and stigmatization. But agape love, while extreme in it selflessness, is a happy medium between feeling everything and feeling nothing. This kind of love helps us overcome the pain of conflict and difference by acknowledging and bearing it. This kind of love is something in between, it’s about understanding the differences you have with someone else and loving them anyways.

           If you were to engage with someone who has never met a Christian before, what would you want their immediate impression to be of you? Ignorant, indifferent, simply tolerant? No. That person should remember you for your love.

Our Marsh community tries to be a real, loving heart in the heart of the city, an inclusive center for all, including gay, straight, bi, trans, queer, or unsure. You hear this most Sundays and it is predicated on love. As your feet are washed today, or as you wash someone else’s feet today, recognize that these are acts of love for all who wish to follow the example Jesus sets for us. The motivation behind Jesus’ initial act? Agape. Love.

-Tom Batson, Matthew Cron, Devin Harvin, Nick Rodriguez,

Kasey Schultz, Denise-Nicole Stone & Ian Quillen 

Boston University Marsh Chapel Associates

In Conversation with Nouwen: Here and Now

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

Click here to hear the full service

Ezekiel 37: 1-14

John 11: 1-4, 28-45

Click here to hear the sermon only

Preface

         Throughout the year 2017, at Marsh Chapel, we are engaged in ministry with attention to conversation. Our regular weekly gathering and preaching affirm conversation. Our Summer National Preacher Series will engage in conversation about new directions in discipleship. Our Lenten Series, concluding today, has engaged in conversation with Henri Nouwen. Over the past decade, 2007-2016, Lent by Lent,we identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition. For this next decade, we turn to the Catholic tradition. Over the next decade, beginning this Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, will turn left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, and others, one per year. Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, as a few have done this past week, not from Geneva, but from Rome? For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list.

So, our sermons, largely in teaching format this Lent, have engaged Father Nouwen. We conclude today, attentive to conversation, and looking toward holy communion. Over these five weeks we have relied on Nouwen’s books, Compassion, Reaching Out, The Life of the Beloved, The Wounded Healer, and, today, Here and Now. Continue to read with us, as you have time, energy, interest and capacity.

With the ancient Hebrew prophets, like Ezekiel, and in harmony with the Gospel of John, the Spiritual Gospel, Nouwen invites, nay implores us, to practice the presence of God. Here and Now. Hic et Nunc. Here and Now. In worship. In prayer. In sacrament. In means of grace. In study. In fasting. In conversation. And perhaps in some forms of spiritual discipline new to and particular to our time? Ours is a particular, challenging time, now, and here.

Ezekiel

         Ours in not a normal time. The events of this year are not within the norm, are not habituated to the contours of normal American history. From the current leadership of this country now come steadily the beginning features of civil humiliation inaugurated on November 8 and January 20. Ours is not a normal time, but a time of lasting, painful humiliation. More than a decade will be required to undo the damage done already. Ours is become a valley of dry bones.

          In the 6th century bce the prophet Ezekiel announced a vision, a communal resurrection, for his people. As did the other prophets, he directly addressed the waywardness of Israel. Whereas Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isaiah contrasted the wickedness of contemporary Jerusalem with a better past, Ezekiel portrays the entire history of Jerusalem and of Israel as one of continuous rebellion and sin against Yahweh (IBD, Supplement, 316, W Zimmerl). Intones Ezekiel, offering a vision out of exile: There were very many upon the valley, and lo they were very dry. What would he say today?

Now we are presented, by our ostensible, putative national leadership, with a denial of climate change, and a coarse willingness to dismiss reasoned scientific consensus. Now we are presented daily with a steady drumbeat of hateful rhetoric and action regarding immigrants, refugees, Muslims, Mexicans, and others. Wait and watch the list grow. Now we are presented with the shameful need for further judicial review, and perhaps a doubled rejection, of misguided executive action. Now we are presented with a low level disdain for the highest, most proven forms and institutions in journalism across the nation. Now we are presented with a willingness, only temporarily stymied by legislative mayhem, to steal away health insurance, and thus health care, from 24 millions of our own citizens. And he said to me, Son of Man, can these bones live? Now we are presented with multiple varieties of gratuitous cruelty, including the insidious, callous, baseless slander of the former by the current president. Now we are presented with a national budget that increases military spending 10% and by the same percent decreases human funding. Now we are presented with apparent prevarications regarding remarkable, until this year what would have been unbelievable, machinations in support of collusion with Russian oligarchs. Now we are presented with falsehood morning, and falsehood evening, and a happy willingness to let the consequences of such falsehood abound. Now we are presented with a period in our own national history in which Shakespeare’s 66th sonnet lives, and groans, sauntering like a wild beast, across a humiliated land: strength by limping sway dislodged, art made tongue-tied by authority, folly doctor like controlling skill, simple truth miscalled simplicity, captive good attending captain ill. Things are worse than we begin to imagine. The creaky quasi resistance (let us give some credit where some is due) by courts, by journalists, by congress, by civil society (including a very few churches, one in twenty) that in limited measure we have seen thus far, comes from within the country. Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold they say ‘our bones are dried up and our hope is lost and we are clean cut off’.

But we are mistaken naively to consider that with which we have been presented thus far as the great danger of our time. It is not. No, the great dangers are in foreign policy, where there are such few checks and balances, such few filters, such few even enfeebled civic capacities for resistance and rejection. The great danger is in choices made and then executed, bye executive action, with regard to war and peace, military activity, diplomatic silence, and, thus global harm. No. The motto of our leadership now is not America First, as horrid as that is in its own right, and given its own etymology. The real motto, rightly pronounced, is America First and America Last and America Only. Remember this, and well, when the next terror tragedy occurs. And one there will be.

A far better route is not only possible but proximate. We need only look north to Canada, with few exceptions, to compare and contrast our acute, abject fulsome humiliation here, with what a sane national policy and life can actually be like. Right next door. I shall put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, says the Lord.

Nouwen

          To endure, over a decade to come, we shall need, profoundly need, the daily practice of the presence of God, here and now, as Scripture and Tradition steadily teach. Nouwen, now, is our guide.

We remembered last week the theological contours of Henri Nouwen’s teaching: compassion, redemption, presence, hospitality, and the figure of the ‘wounded healer’. His compassionate voice, and his capacity for community, make him a reliable and restorative conversation partner, in our time. So, now, Nouwen may help to ground us in our life of faith, work of love, and commitment to Christ crucified. Toward the end of his life, Nouwen took up residence in a community dedicated to shared, common care for disabled persons, located in Toronto, a L’Arche community named Daybreak, including a patient named Adam. In a moment one our Chapel leaders will say something about L’Arche, a movement developed by the blessed Canadian Christian leader, Jean Vanier, who for many of us, has stood out as an inspiration for ongoing life in Christ.

In a way it is not surprising to think of Nouwen leaving behind both academic gown and monk’s cowl to take up a wash basin, a towel, a cloth, and to practice the presence of God, as did Brother Lawrence, in the simplicity of service.

Most of us today, one judges, given the condition our condition is in, could benefit from a straight forward reminder, in Nouwen’s terms, of living in the present, in the ‘here and now’. My friend, a strong lay leader in our church, once said, ‘Wherever you are: be there. Wherever you are: be there.

Here are Nouwen’s seven guidelines, for such a manner of life, practice, discipline and presence. 1. Remember that every day is a new beginning. Imagine that we could live each day as a day full of promises (HJN, Here and Now, 16). 2. Dispense with unnecessary ‘oughts’ and ‘ifs’. The past and the future keep harassing us, the past with guilt, the future with worries. (18) 3. Celebrate birthdays. On birthdays we celebrate the present…we lift someone up and let everyone say, ‘we love you’. (20) 4. Live in the present. Prayer is the discipline of the moment (22). 5. Use repetition in prayer, repetition of a word, a phrase, a line, a prayer. Such a word reminds us of God’s love. We can put it in the center of our inner room, like a candle in a dark place (24). 6. Pray for others, pray specifically for particular people in unique ways. To pray for one another is, first of all, to acknowledge, in the presence of God, that we belong to each other as children of the same God. (26) 7. Stay close to the hub of life, that is to the center from which all else emerges. When I pray, I enter into the depth of my own heart, and find there the heart of God, who speaks to me of love (28).

Nouwen goes on, emphasizing the here and now, to name some of the substance of prayer. Joy. Suffering. Conversion. Discipline. Spirit. Compassion. Family. Relationships. Identity. In a way, his whole life work, might well have been an addendum to the Fourth Gospel.

John

         For the Gospel of John, allowed a meager three-week interjection into our lectionary this month, by interruption of Matthew, is centrally, even solely, an announcement of presence, divine presence, the presence of God. Really only this theological, interpretative insight will make sense for you and me of John 11. Some in the Johannine community spoke in the voice of Jesus. Especially this is so in the ‘I Am’ sayings. If Jesus on earth did not say these things who did? Answer: the Johannine prophet (s). The preacher in John 11 announces presence. I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live. You are a person of faith? Practice that presence. You are a Christian? Practice that presence. You are a Methodist yearning for a faith amendable to culture and culture amenable to faith? Are you? Yes? Practice that presence. The ancient, troubled, community of the beloved disciple, that of John, has your back.

John Ashton: Conscious as they were of the continuing presence in their midst of the Glorified One, no wonder the community, or rather the evangelist who was its chief spokesman, smoothed out the rough edges of the traditions of the historical Jesus…(His portrait of Jesus) arose from his constant awareness, which he shared with members of his community, that they were living in the presence of the Glorified One. So dazzling was this glory that any memory of a less-than-glorious Christ was altogether eclipsed…(They) realized that the truth that they prized as the source of their new life was to be identified not with the Jesus of history but with the risen and glorious Christ, and that this was a Christ free from all human weakness. The claims they made for him were at the heart of the new religion that soon came to be called Christianity. (199) The difference between John’s portrait of Christ and that o the Synoptists is best accounted for by the experience of the glorious Christ constantly present to him and his community (204) (The Gospel of John and Christian Origins).

Nouwen invites, nay implores us, implores you, to practice the presence of God. Here and Now. Hic et Nunc. Here and Now. In worship. In prayer. In sacrament. In means of grace. In study. In fasting. In conversation. And perhaps in some forms of spiritual discipline new to and particular to our time? Say, in spiritual yoga?

Yoga

         R: Welcome! It’s nice to see you here at our lectern this morning.

A: Thank you.

R\A: What is your name? Amy Aubrecht. Where are you from? Buffalo Where did you go to college? Cornell. Did you study theology? Yes, right next door.

R: Am I right that you served in a L’Arche community in Syracuse some years ago, and if so, what was that like?

A: Yes. In good Nouwen fashion, it combined compassion and community.

R: Thank you for being here. And thank you for living out and so reminding us of L’Arche, Vanier, and Nouwen. One more question. Do you lead spiritual yoga, as a prayerful discipline, every Thursday here at Marsh at 5pm? And if so, can others join?

A: Yes, and yes.

R: Open to all?

A: Yes.2017

R: Even an aging white guy with a comb-over?

A: Probably.

R: Five O’Clock Thursdays?

A: Yes.

R: We believe in God who has created and is creating….

          A: Amen

-the Reverend Dr. Robert Allen Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

In Conversation with Nouwen: The Wounded Healer

Sunday, March 26th, 2017

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John  9:1-11

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‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’.  Then I went and washed and received my sight.’

Let us draw wisdom from Scripture, insight from theology, and encouragement from experience this Lord’s day.

Scripture

(The Two Level Drama of the Fourth Gospel)

Let us draw wisdom from Scripture.

       John 9 describes the healing of a man born blind, and the communal controversy surrounding that healing.  Like the rest of the Gospel, this passage reports two layers of healing, of blindness, of community, and of controversy.   On one hand, the passage remembers, perhaps by the aid of a source or as part of a source, a moment in the ministry of Jesus (30ad), in which a man is given sight.  On the other hand, the passage announces the spiritual unshackling of a hero in thecommunity (90ad), who bears witness to what Jesus has done for him, no matter the repercussions from others, from parents, from family, from community.

     The preacher in the Johannine community of the late first century is telling the story of the Son of Man.  To do so, he celebrates the courageous witness to healing, and the courageous endurance of expulsion, of a man born blind.  Here, he says, is what I mean by faith.  The story he uses comes, through un-trackable oral and written traditions, from 30ad.  The story he tells comes from 90ad.  Every character in the story has two roles.  Jesus is both earthly rabbi and heavenly redeemer.  The blind man is both historic patient and current hero.  The family is from both Palestinian memory and diaspora synagogue.  The Jews are both the contemporaries of Jesus and the nearby inhabitants of the synagogue, the Johannine community’s former home.   When Jesus gives sight, Christ gives freedom.  When the blind one is cured, the congregation sees truth.  When the man is cast out of his synagogue, the community of the beloved disciple recognizes their own most recent expulsion.  When the Jews criticize Jesus, the synagogue is criticizing the church.  When the healing story ends, the life of faith begins.  His voice both addresses you and emanates from you.  Not your voice, his is nonetheless your voice.

John 9 illumines the central struggle of the community, their bitter spiritual itinerancy from the familiar confines of Christian Judaism, out into the unknown wilderness of Jewish Christianity.  History and the history of religions bear manifold witness to this kind of crisis in communal identity, and the long hard trail of travel from primary to secondary identity.  In retrospect, as the community gathers itself in its new setting (the pilgrims in Boston, the Mormons in Utah) the story of the tearful trail itself becomes the heart of communal memory and imagination.

      What is here unearthed in John 9 can also and readily be applied to the rest of the Gospel of John as well:  to the wedding at Cana, to Nicodemus, to the woman at the well, to the healing on the water, to the feeding of the thousands, to the controversies with the Jews, to the raising of Lazarus, to the farewell discourse, to the trial and passion.  All of these reflect the experience in dramatic interaction between the synagogue and John’s church. This includes, later, the mysterious figure of the Paraclete, the Spirit, who functions as Jesus’ eternal presence in the world, Jesus, God ‘striding on earth’ (Kasemann).  In this way, the Paraclete himself creates the two level drama.  Where the world is mono focal, and can see only the historical level of Jesus in history or only the theological level of Jesus in the witness of the Christian community, the Paraclete binds the two together.  The Word dwelling among us, and our beholding his glory, are not past events only.  They transpire in a two level drama.  They transpire both on the historical and contemporary levels, OR NOT AT ALL.  Their transpiration on both levels is itself the good news, an overture to the rapturous discoveries of freedom in disappointment, grace in dislocation, and love in departure.

Wisdom from Scripture.

Theology

(The Voice of Henri Nouwen on the Wounded Healer)

Let us draw insight from theology.

        In a season of general, national interest in wounds and healing, it is timely, serendipitous even, for us to hear about the healing of the man born blind in John 9, and more so to hear from our celebrated, honored Roman Catholic theological conversation partner for Lent 2017, Henri Nouwen, of blessed memory, on his most revered theme, that of the ‘wounded healer’.  His book of that title reminded another generation, and can teach us all still, about the interconnection between our own wounds and the healing of others.  Nouwen explored in that monograph, The Wounded Healer, four different doors of entry into ministry:  the suffering world, a suffering generation, human suffering in general, and the condition of the suffering minister.  While Nouwen’s work is sometimes criticized as ‘theology lite’, its accessibility has provided many with a profound sense of the relational dimensions of gospel, of philosophy, of preaching, of ministry and of therapy.

      His chief concern he identifies clearly (p 47): ‘The task of Christian leaders is to bring out the best in everyone and to lead them forward to a more human community; the danger is that their skillful diagnostic eye will become more an eye for the distant and detailed analysis than the eye of a compassionate partner.  And if priests and ministers think that more skill training is the solution for the problem of Christian leadership, they may end up being more frustrated and disappointed than the leaders of the past.  More training and structure are just as necessary as more bread for the journey.  But just as bread given without love can bring war instead of peace, professionalism without compassion will turn forgiveness into a gimmick, and the kingdom to come into a blindfold’.  

       Compassion, not analysis, comes first.  Compassion, suffering with:  It is not the task of Christian leaders to go around nervously trying to redeem people, to save them at the last minute, to put them on the right track.  For we are redeemed, once and for all.  Christian leaders are called to help others affirm this great news, and to make visible in daily events the fact that behind the curtain of our painful symptoms, there is something to be seen:  the face of God in whose image we are shaped (48).  

      The manner by which compassion comes into life is, for Nouwen, utterly personal.  While he was not a Lutheran—far from it—he would probably have agreed with Luther that the preaching of the Gospel is ‘one beggar telling another where they both may find bread’.  In fact, there is hardly a more personal calling than a calling to pastoral ministry. And what a privilege it is to enter and live in such a calling.  A privilege to be able to be with people at the dawn of life, in the twilight of life, under the shadows of life.  To hold murmuring infants, to confirm squirming teenagers, to bless nervous not to say clueless grooms and brides, to wring hands and pray at the bedside when the outcomes are uncertain at best, to listen in tears to the pain of loss, divorce, failure, emptiness, to stand over the open grave in quiet.  You can make a lot more money doing something else, and you can achieve a lot more influence, of a certain sort, doing something else, and you can have a lot more free time doing something else, and there are many worthy callings, many ways to keep faith.  But there is nothing quite like the privilege—the joy, the hurt, the rigor, the demand—the privilege of pastoral ministry.  And how hungry our people are for it.  There is nothing else like it in all of life.  ‘The emptiness of the past and future can never be filled with words, but only with the presence of a human being’. (69).

       Perhaps Nouwen is best remembered for this phrase, ‘the wounded healer’.  ‘Since it is their task to make visible the first vestiges of liberation for others, (ministers) must bind their own wounds carefully, in anticipation of the moment when they will be needed.  They are each called to be the wounded healer, the ones who must not only look after their own wounds but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others.  They are both wounded ministers and healing ministers.’ (88) Now, when the balance between the two goes off-kilter, and wounds eclipse health, we have a problem.  But the appellation is true enough, when truly pursued.  It is perhaps most apparent in loneliness.  The ministry is lonely, but only lonely in a way representative of all faithful life.  In the last few years, the utter uniqueness of grief, for each person, the individuality of the way we grieve—the very opposite of one size fits all—has stood out, for me.  Your grief, though shared and made common in the community of faith, is nonetheless idiosyncratic—your own most self in tears, your spiritual fingerprint, your religious voice, your manner of walking in walking the faith.  All the cautions of Nouwen’s book are worthy.  But the capacity for hospitality, the power in hospitality, that comes here into ministry is unmistakable.  Hospitality makes anxious disciples into powerful witnesses, makes suspicious owners into generous givers, and makes close-minded sectarians into recipients of new ideas and insights (95)….Ministers are not doctors whose primary task is to take away pain.  Rather, they deepen the pain to a level where it can be shared.  When people come with their loneliness to ministers, they can only expect that their loneliness will be understood and felt, so that they no longer have to run away from it, but can accept it as an expression of the basic human condition.

Insight from theology.

Experience

(A Thought on Entering Ministry, 1953, Rev. Mr. Irving G. Hill)

From experience we may draw encouragement.  

     Here is a memory, written in 2006, drawn from 1953.  That is, sixty-five years past, it is about the same distance from us in time as was the Gospel of John from the events in the life, death and destiny of Jesus of Nazareth.  The writer, my father, was soon to graduate from the School of Theology.

“One balmy spring evening, in the early fifties, I was returning to our apartment at 17 Yarmouth Street in Boston…

As I walked across Huntington Avenue, I looked to my left and saw the lighted dome of the Christian Science Mother Church. I had seen it many times before.  I had taken our youth fellowship there to visit and walk through the giant globe that is there.  But this evening as I made that familiar crossing I was struck, not by an auto, but by the reality that in just a few days I would receive my theological degree and become the pastor of the Brewerton Methodist Church.

How could this be? What was I to do? I was only 24 years old.  I had never dealt with death except in theory.  I had never sat with a couple after the death of a child.  I had never counseled a couple preparing for marriage except in a classroom setting.  To my recollection I had never spoken with a person who had no belief in God or saw any reason for one.  I had never thought how a church budget was raised or more significantly how my salary would be paid.  In a few days, I would be facing all of these things and more.

I recalled a conversation that occurred at the just past annual conference with a committee from the Brewerton church.  One of the saints said to me, “Young man, if you get a better offer, you had better take it, I don’t know how we will be able to pay your salary.” How about that?

Now, I had grown up in the church, attended church school, taught church school.  I had been active in the youth fellowship at the local level and the conference level.  Marcia and I had spent one summer as life guards at Camp Casowasco.  But now I was to be the pastor of a church in a community that I had only driven through.  

Of course, I had graduated from a Methodist related university and had the privilege of studying at one of the better theological schools for three years, but on that June evening in the middle of that empty thoroughfare, I was totally lost.

Then I heard, “You don’t think you are going to do this all by yourself do you?  Surely I will be with you.”

I heard that voice as clearly as I have ever heard anything and it has remained with me for these past 53 years.

It has taken the form of a loving, supportive wife, a devoted family, dedicated and caring lay people, inspired bishops, superintendents, and brother and sister clergy, group commanders, wing chaplains and people of God, just like you.”

Encouragement from experience.

Scripture. Theology. Experience.  Wisdom. Insight. Encouragement.

‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’.  Then I went and washed and received my sight.’
Amen.

-the Reverend Dr. Robert Allen Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel 

In Conversation with Nouwen: The Life of the Beloved

Sunday, March 19th, 2017

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John  4:5-42

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Life for All

‘A spring of water gushing up to eternal life’.

The gospel is our spoken gift of faith.

Some will have seen the recent film ‘La La Land’, and recall the haunting soulful tune that knits the story together. That phrase of music is the refrain from which the story takes wing and to which it returns, moment by moment, as your life and soul life return, again and again, to the gospel, a spoken gift of faith, the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us. Spoken, sung.

Sung. Every bird sings faith, over the globe, through all time. Thurman loved penguins, odd and remote, and their dress, and their song. Listen. Along the Charles, in the spring, we make way for goslings and ducklings. Early in the summer mornings, out in the farmland where we live in the summer, the northeastern tip of Appalachia, and where we will be buried, where we are at home, at dawn a rooster. Two eagles—they too mate for life, as in Christian marriage—soaring–imagine their music. The owl at night. A swan song, a silver swan, who living had no note. The gospel is a bird in song, and all nature sings. Even if or when the preaching of the gospel by human imperfection abates, as it does threaten to do, birdsong will carry the tune. God can preach God’s gospel through birdsong.

Spoken. Derek Walcott, of Boston University, a Methodist: I seek, as climate seeks its style, to write verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight, cold as the curled wave, ordinary as a tumbler of island water.

John

            Father Raymond Brown judged our passage today, John 4, to be the loveliest, finest narrative in the Fourth Gospel. The woman at the well, the Samaritan woman, meets Jesus and meets us in conversation. She is the quintessential conversationalist.

And what a wonder is there in the faintest conversation, let alone this dominical discussion! Ours today, from John 4, is holy, telling conversation, full of the unexpected, full of surprise, full of the utterly personal, full of revelation, full of boundary breaking courage, full of what is saving, healthy, lasting, meaningful, real, and good. Conversation thrives when you know your content, your work, and your audience. There is a mystery lurking under the disarming surface of the simplest conversation. My friend says her favorite two words are ‘awe’ and ‘conversation’. We could add that the two are not very far removed, or apart from each other.

It may have been that the community which gave birth to the Gospel of John included some Samaritans. This would explain the prominence of this long, intricate passage, devoted to the conversation of Jesus with a Samaritan woman. The Samaritans were outsiders. Here, one of their own takes center stage. In our time when those outside—immigrants, refugees, the poor, the different, the other—are steadily subjected to heightened measures of exclusion, we benefit from reminders, like this from John 4, that we are called as people of faith, called as Christian people, to care, succor, attention and protection of the ‘least’ among us. The larger question, and it is very much an open question, is whether the humiliation spreading out right now through civil society and culture–wherein inherited, precious forms of civil society are daily shredded with a gratuitous cruelty–coming now to us over the next decade, will chasten us, will humble us, will in that way strengthen us by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. He it is, today, who announces His own presence, and Lordship, in the course of a meandering conversation: I am He, the One who is speaking to you…A spring of water gushing up to eternal life

Lenten Conversation

            Throughout the year 2017, at Marsh Chapel, we are engaged in ministry with attention to conversation. Our Summer National Preacher Series will engage in conversation about new directions in discipleship. Our Lenten Series, beginning today, will engage in conversation with Henri Nouwen. Over the past decade, Lent by Lent, we have identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition. For the next decade, we turn to the Catholic tradition. Over the next decade, beginning this Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, will turn left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition. We began March 5 with Henri Nouwen, and Sacrament, continuing last week with Nouwen and Reaching Out. Today, Nouwen and the Life of the Beloved.

Nouwen (from the ‘Nouwen Society’)

            “The internationally renowned priest and author, respected professor and beloved pastor Henri Nouwen wrote over 40 books on the spiritual life. He corresponded regularly in English, Dutch, German, French and Spanish with hundreds of friends and reached out to thousands through his Eucharistic celebrations, lectures and retreats. Since his death in 1996, ever-increasing numbers of readers, writers, teachers and seekers have been guided by his literary legacy. Nouwen’s books have sold over 8 million copies and been published in over 28 languages.

Born in Holland, 1932, Nouwen felt called to the priesthood at a very young age. He was ordained in 1957 as a diocesan priest and studied psychology at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. In 1964 he moved to the United States to study at the Menninger Clinic. He went on to teach at the University of Notre Dame, and the Divinity Schools of Yale and Harvard. For several months during the 1970s, Nouwen lived and worked with the Trappist monks in the Abbey of the Genesee, and in the early 1980s he lived with the poor in Peru. In 1985 he was called to join L’Arche in Trosly, France, the first of over 100 communities founded by Jean Vanier where people with developmental disabilities live with assistants. A year later Nouwen came to make his home at L’Arche Daybreak near Toronto, Canada. He died suddenly on September 21st, 1996, in Holland and is buried in Richmond Hill, Ontario.”

Nouwen believed that what is most personal is most universal; he wrote, “By giving words to these intimate experiences I can make my life available to others.”

Servants of God

            Nouwen dedicated his life to the practice of genuine conversation, genuine faithfulness. He eschewed the false formal and prized the personal in piety. A story, from the same period, from Charles Rice at Drew, Nouwen would hae loved. A few years ago Rice spoke about the servant of the servants of God. He told about an Easter when he was in Greece. He sat in the Orthodox church and watched the faithful in devotions. There was a great glassed icon of Christ, to which, following prayers, women and men would move, then kneel, then as they rose they kissed the glassed icon. Every so often a woman dressed in black would emerge from the shadows with some cleanser, or windex, and a cloth and –psh, psh—would clean the image, making it clear again. Washing clean the image again, and freeing it from so much encrusted piety. And he had a revelation about service and power and authority and leadership. As he watched the woman in black cleaning the icon, he realized that this was what his ministry was meant to be. A daily washing away from the face of Christ all that obscured, all that distorted, all that blocked others from seeing his truth, goodness and beauty. Including a lot of piety.

Life of the Beloved

            Years ago, by accident, Nouwen met a man named Fred, a journalist who wanted to write a novel.  (We had a saying in our family, when intrusive questions arose; ‘Are you a journalist or writing a book?’)  Well, Fred was the former and hoping to do the latter.  But he feared a shift in vocation, for all the usual suspect reasons.  Henri though persisted in encouraging the man to leave his job and write his book.  He went out of his way.  Nouwen procured him a grant to do so!  So the man entered a new season of vocational discernment, and though he never finished the novel, he did find a deeper level of living, a sense of meaning, and, in the bargain, a great friend in Nouwen.

We might pause to wonder a bit about our callings.  Is this your final resting place in vocation—where you are now I mean?  You have heard some sort of call, and heeded, or you would not be where you are.  But what about the second call?  Is there a knocking at your spiritual door, asking you to consider a second call, another call?  Fred was a good journalist, but he heard a second call, to write, and in hearing, and in heeding, though not in his case in succeeding, he found himself closer to his own most self.  Life is a series of invitations, and a process of discernment. We might pause right now, in front of God and everybody, to wonder about our callings.

Last year at commencement we had a speaker who told about a second call.  Not all commencement addresses need or even deserve remembrance.  But it had a diamond embedded in it, a treasure buried in a field.  The speaker graduated from BU as an actress and went to La La Land.  She did what aspiring actors do.  She waited tables.  For a year.  And another.  And a third.  Then she got a job, part time, on the business side of show business.  You know what?  She liked it.  And it liked her.  Then she said:  “I looked at my acting career lived out in waiting tables, and I made a decision.  I decided my calling was to something else.  I decided to (here is the gem) EDIT MY DREAMS.”  She decided to edit her dreams.  So Nina Tassler, waitress, became the head of CBS entertainment. Yes.  Sometimes a second call comes along and invites you to edit your dreams.

Henri Nouwen invited Fred to edit his dreams.  And he did.  Then Fred invited Henri to edit his dreams, in this way.  He asked Nouwen to write a simple book about the spiritual life in a secular world, a book for ordinary people, not academics, ordinary people, not clergy, ordinary people, not even religious people.  This took Nouwen out of his comfort zone, but out of that zone he went.  He wrote a book, The Life of the Beloved.

Our Gospel today, John 4, has a radiance of love within it, as does Nouwen’s book.  Here, in brief, is what Nouwen wrote, this esteemed Roman Catholic theologian, this Yale academic, this profoundly erudite priest.  It is portable, what he wrote.  You can carry it home after the sermon.  You are beloved!  You are loved.  God loves, and loves you.  And you need not do anything to prove it, to earn it, to achieve it, to deserve it.  You:  beloved.  That is, in a single word, the life of the spirit.  Beloved.

But of course Nouwen went on to develop this theme, the trails and traces of the spirit in the single word.  He put together a quadrilateral, what we can call the love quartet today.  First, wrote Nouwen, to become beloved, we need to acknowledge that we are ‘taken’.  Chosen.  Wanted.  And grateful for it!  Second, to become beloved, we want to acknowledge that we are ‘blessed’.  You are precious in God’s sight, blessed, beloved.  As you are, not as you might be later on.  Right now, as you are right now.  You claim your blessing through the practice of prayer and through attention to presence.  My friend says her two favorite words are conversation and awe.  Well.  There.  Memorize a prayer or three (The Lord’s Prayer, Wesley’s Table Graces, the Prayer of Assisi).  Third, to live as beloved we want to acknowledge our brokenness. “Each human being suffers in a way no other human being suffers.” (87)  It will not do to repress our sadness, our resentment, our fear, our anger. No.  We are human, beloved human beings, and so are honest about our fractures.  Nouwen then wrote about AIDS, a crucial subject in that time (1992).  To heal we have to step toward our pain.  Here we can all learn from the 12 step programs, as long as we realize that there are many ways to be addicted that can have nothing to do with substances.  You might be surprised to know that Nouwen’s most personal example was his grief at the death of Leonard Bernstein.  Fourth, we are given, as beloved ones.  We are loved, but not just for our own sakes.  As Huston Smith—similarly an academic, similarly a theologian though a Methodist, similarly a cleric—put it, thinking perhaps of his parents who were missionaries in China:  ‘we are in good hands, and so it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens’.   When we enjoy others, and with joy give ourselves to others, and engage in enjoyment among others, then, in reality, we are given, because we are giving.  You only truly have what you give away.  Starting—and ending—with your time.  Here Nouwen concludes, and rightly, by drawing us toward our own death, and the way we give of ourselves not just living but dying.  (You remember my OOPS advice, as we prepare for the end of life:  obituary, order of worship, photograph, special papers.) But Nouwen means something more:  ‘the spirit of love once freed from our mortal bodies will blow where it wills’. (125).  Chosen, Blessed, Broken, Given. “Eternal Life is the full revelation of what we have been and have lived all along” (137).

By grace we too, you and I, have been chosen and set in time and space, to live in faith. By grace we too, you and I have been blessed, sometimes with happiness and sometimes with loss, sometimes with fulfillment and sometimes with unrequited love. By grace, we too, you and I, in honesty, in confession, must add, we have been broken, our brokenness best sung maybe by Leonard Cohen—ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in…forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in…there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in…that’s how the light gets in. By grace we too, you and I have been given, to be gifts and become givers, to choose, tomorrow, one pure act of kindness, to imagine it, plan it, pray over it, do it, and watch it recede in the rear view window.

In the student union, Thursday, a young pianist, of limited ability, but of great heart, played a tune, the haunting soulful tune you may have heard, remembered, from a current film. That phrase of music is the refrain from which the story takes wing and to which it returns, moment by moment, as your life and soul life return, again and again, to the gospel, a spoken gift of faith, the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us.

A spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

-the Reverend Dr. Robert Allen Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel 

A Communion Meditation: In Conversation with Nouwen

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

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Romans 5:12-19

Matthew 4:1-11

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A Journey Through Scripture

We journey together this Lent through conversation.

We enter each Lord’s Day into close conversation with Holy Scripture.  We enter each Lord’s Day into conversation with our Lenten theological conversation partner, this year, 2017, the Rev. Dr. Henri Nouwen, of blessed memory.  We enter each Lord’s Day into conversation with life about us, and the living souls around us, and this day, as is our custom, around the Lord’s Table, bread and cup, thanksgiving, presence and remembrance.

We have come to love the Holy Scripture, a source of abiding inspiration, a canon or rule or measure of the matters of faith more real than the very real life around us, a rhythmic accompaniment in holiness to the daily walk of faith in life.  We do love the Holy Scripture, and account its authority in our midst, primarily in pragmatic terms.  Come Sunday, that is, it is simply our custom to read and interpret the Holy Scripture, on the journey of holy living.

Our lessons today introduce conversation, and so are more than apt for the first Sunday this Lent. In widely different ways, Romans 5 and Matthew 4 are the open volleys in substantive conversation.

You recall that Paul introduces himself to the church in Rome, prior to his expected visit, by the writing of the Letter to the Romans, his magnum opus, his formal appearance clothed almost entirely in theological language.  ‘Here I am’, says Paul, to the church he has yet to meet.  Now he may also have wanted to sum up here in 55ad what he already had already written earlier to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, and Galatians.  He may also, let us be candid, have desired to moderate, qualify, and temper what he wrote to the Galatians in a white heat, in total honest transparency, and in anger.  Paul’s Letter to the Romans gives two or three chapters each, beginning in Romans 1, to five themes, Sin, Salvation (where we are today Romans 5), Spirit, Israel, and Church. 5 ways of meeting the Romans, somewhat on their terms, and somewhat on his.

So these words you have heard, somewhat strange, even odd, to our ears, open a conversation.  How?  With heartfelt honesty and technical precision regarding pain and struggle in life.  Life is struggle, and the Apostle here captures your struggle with a recognition of sin, the gone wrongness in life, by a recognition of the death, the end of every life, and by a recognition of law—one might say religion—as cause, lens and entry into understanding of sin and death. .  Pau’s dense, complex argument about sin, and death, and their origin, and their interrelation, may strain us a bit, in a limited moment of interpretation, but, at a minimum, are, in their form, and content, quite true to what we experience.  Though we do not deign to acknowledge it so, most hours, the fragility and brevity of our lives is ever present to us.  Though we do not prefer to face it, most days, the leaning tendency toward what can and does go wrong in life, is regularly present to us.  Paul, using his received tradition, traces the latter (sin) back through the former (death) all the way to the beginning (Adam).  An awareness of the proximity of death and the tendency toward sin can become, as surely it was for Paul, for us a grounding in the ground of life.  All sin, all fall short of the glory of God.  All flesh, all flesh, all flesh is grass.

Not Paul only, but Matthew also, today, assays to explain for us, and to us, and to us, a part of our condition, the struggle in life.  Matthew begins the conversation about the adult life and ministry of Jesus, with the story of the Temptation.  Life is hard, life is struggle, life is struggle with all manner of temptation.  In a narrative, three-point sermon, a stylized and fabulous remembrance of an early Christian preacher, taken up by Matthew and Luke, Jesus wrestles with the devil, over greed and pride and power.   Every day is a struggle, says this preacher, and every day in the struggle we are held in the memory of Jesus our Lord who knew struggle, knew our struggle, knew this very struggle, high on a mountain, contesting o diabalos.

You will ask whether your preacher believes in the devil (note the shift from Satan to Devil here).  No, he does not.  But he does remember this Lent of 2017 the voice of Hans Frei in the Lent of 1977, in the common room of Union Theological Seminary, as Frei remembered the words of Emil Brunner circa Lent 1947, just after the great horror of World War II.  Asked the same, ‘Do you believe in the Devil?’, Brunner replied in 1947, as remembered by Frei in 1977 and quoted here today in 2017: Yes.  For two reasons.  First, Jesus mentions him the Bible.  Second, I have seen him.  Conversation begins well with utter candid, frank, honesty about our condition:  mortal, prone to harm others, children of Adam, acquainted with, and on familial terms with sin and death.

The temptations presented in this early Christian sermon, a fabled imagination of Jesus struggling with the Devil, are ‘to work miracles for the sake of immediate need, to give a convincing sign, and to exercise political power’ (IBD loc.cit.).  In a word, the temptation is to confuse the penultimate with the ultimate.  The work of faith, as upheld in our Sacrament today, labors to keep us free from this kind of idolatry.  Him only shall you serve. 

Many among us, and all of us many times in a lifetime, know well the struggle with temptation that one way or another promotes lesser loyalties to supplant, or obscure, or eclipse one great loyalty.  The cruciform path, the way of love, an arduous journey as Lent reminds us, asks of us an upward climb.  There is a thrill in the ascent of the next high hill, but there is an ache in the knees, too.

 

A Journey With Nouwen

We also journey this Lent in conversation, and in the fair company, the loving presence of Henri Nouwen.

Where are we?

Physics, Chemistry, Biology—they are all wonderful pursuits.  Earth Science stands out, though, as the mode of inquiry which helps us locate ourselves.  The manner of the meandering of rivers, the tidal pull, the history of the glaciers, the height of mountains and depths of deserts, the solar system, galaxy, and cosmos, the longitude and latitude—it is no platitude—help us to stand, and walk, and move.

Where are we?

We are entering Lent, a time and journey of preparation and discipline.  On the whole, come Lent, we turn for a moment inward, more toward the individual than the communal, more toward personal than social holiness, more toward deep personal faith than toward active social involvement, though, of course, they are both and lastingly and daily ours.  You might find one new, daily, habit to cultivate this Lent.

We are walking with our lectionary readings from Holy Scripture.  This year it is the Gospel of Matthew, and his emphasis on discipleship, which guides us week by week.  We read the lessons of Holy Scripture each week, all through the year, and endeavor to interpret them for our own time, even as they were themselves traditional interpretations of tradition in their own time.  A muscular liturgy, a rigorous ordered worship, a challenging sermonic address, a musical echo both familiar and foreign—deep roots that is—will sustain us over the next decade and its various humiliations which have no predetermined outcomes.  Matthew is our Gospel, and today his own introduction to our Lenten season, in the familiar account of the Lord’s temptation.

Throughout the year 2017, at Marsh Chapel, we are engaged in ministry with attention to conversation.  Our Summer National Preacher Series will engage in conversation about new directions in discipleship.  Our Lenten Series, beginning today, will engage in conversation with Henri Nouwen.  Over the past decade, Lent by Lent, we have identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition.  For the next decade, we turn to the Catholic tradition.   With Calvin we encountered the chief resource for others we engaged over the last ten years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), Paul of Tarsus (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin, (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).  Over the next decade, beginning this Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, will turn left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, and others, one per year.  Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?  For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list.  We begin with Henri Nouwen.

Given our interest through the year in conversation, Nouwen seemed like a natural choice.  So in these weeks, as we preach the Gospel grounded in the interpretation of Matthew, we will make some space for dialogue with the Rev. Dr. Henri Nouwen.  Nouwen spoke to the last generation as part of a chorus of talented women and men working at the intersection of psychology and religion.  Think of Seward Hiltner at Princeton.  Recall the voice of Ann Belford Ulanov (a Tillich protégé) at Columbia and Union in New York.  Give some thought to the many voices and faces of our own Danielsen Center here at Boston University.  Nouwen in New Haven at Yale, but also for time here at Harvard, was part of this chorus, during a time, now past, of avid interest in religion and psychology.  In pastoral ministry, with the exception of preparation for preaching, there is hardly a more substantial, fruitful area of preparation than this now somewhat forgotten, even superannuated, preparation for pastoral conversation.  The minister wants to overhear, at a deeper level, what the parishioner, at depth, experiences.  Probably it is not coincidence that the demise of pastoral psychology has occurred alongside the rising tide of mechanical communication in the newer technologies.  Capacities for listening and speaking ebb and flow, wax and wane, in church and culture. Conversation has no grandchildren.

So, our sermons, somewhat in teaching format this Lent, will engage Henri Nouwen.  We begin today, attentive to conversation, and looking toward communion.  Over the next four weeks (Br Whitney taking March 12) we rely on Nouwen’s books, Reaching Out, The Life of the Beloved, The Wounded Healer, and Daybreak.  Read with us, as you have time, energy, interest and capacity.

 

A Journey Through Life

We journey together this Lent in conversation, with one another, our this morning, toward communion.  A word on each.

How are we to practice conversation, itself a means of grace?  Especially when that conversation involves difference, division, diversity?  How do we trace the hidden harmonies (J Wiggins) therein?  We have here no word of the Lord on this.  Here though are some suggestions for you as you practice authentic conversation.  Pray. Listen. Pause. Reflect. Respond (speak, pause, shun).  First, as you anticipate a meaningful conversation, pray about it.  Place person or people, topic or interest, setting or timing, desired outcome and response, in the light of God, in the light of God’s love.  God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.  Second, when in conversation, listen with care, listen to everything, listen with heart as well as mind, listen.  What is heard and what is overheard?  Be able to recite, repeat, rehearse what you have heard.  Third, Pause. Take a breath.  Fourth, reflect on what you have heard—think about it, in real time.  Fear not a reflective silence.  Fear not the fallow, the winter, the quiet, Lent. “Let me reflect for a minute on what you have said”, you might say.  Fifth, fashion some response out of or out of a mixture of ingredients on your cooking shelf.  You might respond by speaking: “well, here’s then what I think”.  You might respond by being quiet: “I need some more time to ponder this”.  You might respond by shunning: “I think we need to part company for a time”.  Or there may be some combination of these.  Yes, the arts of conversation—prayer, listening, reflection, response—are neglected in our culture, in our age, but we have the time of struggle, the time of journey, the time of Lent to reclaim them.

And today communion.

Hear Nouwen on communion, as we come to the Lord’s table:The word that seems best to summarize the desire of the human heart is ‘communion.’  Wherever we look it is communion that we seek. Once you are in communion with God, you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear other people in whom God has also found a dwelling place.

            Baptism opens the door to the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the sacrament through which Jesus enters into an intimate, permanent communion with us. It is the sacrament of the table. It is the sacrament of food and drink. It is the sacrament of daily nurture. While baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime event, the Eucharist can be a monthly, weekly, or even daily occurrence. Jesus gave us the Eucharist as a constant memory of his life and death. Not a memory that simply makes us think of him but a memory that makes us members of his body. That is why Jesus on the evening before he died took bread saying, “This is my Body,” and took the cup saying, “This is my Blood.” By eating the Body and drinking the Blood of Christ, we become one with him.

We journey together this Lent through conversation.  God grant us grace for the struggle!

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

Christian Particularity and Engaging a Pluralistic World

Sunday, February 26th, 2017

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Exodus 24:12-18

2 Peter 1:16-21

Psalm 99

Matthew 17: 1-9

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Good morning. It is a wonder and a joy to be part of this community, and I am especially grateful to Dean Hill for the invitation to join you in the pulpit today.

As your bulletin notes, today is the last Sunday after Epiphany – Transfiguration Sunday. It is that time in the Christian year when we recognize the real presence of God incarnate in Jesus. This theological claim grounds our preparation in Lent (which begins on Wednesday) for the celebration of the miracle of Easter and resurrection. My sermon title plays on the claim that is made in Matthew’s description of Jesus on the mountain. Particularity, this theological concept that God’s incarnation happened through Jesus as a particular person at a particular time and place – about two millennia ago in the region near the Sea of Galilee, is front and center in our gospel today.

Christian particularity, what makes us unique and distinct as a religious body, is grounded in this idea that Jesus is God. Within religious communities we often do a pretty good job of telling our own folk why we are unique and special, what makes us different from everybody else, but that does not always lend itself to thoughtfully engaging folks outside of the community.

Thankfully for the preacher, this is a well-trod topic. (Although for the PhD candidate in me, I wonder how I am ever supposed to contribute to a two-millennia-old conversation.) Twenty years ago, Mary Elizabeth Moore, wrote an article for the British Journal of Religious Education titled, “Teaching Christian particularity in a pluralistic world.” In the article she writes, “Christianity itself lives in the tension between formation and freedom, particularity and pluralism, and that tension is represented in Jesus Christ himself. Although Christians vary greatly in what they believe about Jesus and his teaching, a common heritage of Christians is an affirmation of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. This heritage has sometimes been used as a wedge to divide Christians from people of other faiths, drawing upon such biblical texts as ‘No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14:6b, NRSV) … this very heritage can instead be the source of basic impulses to embrace the pluralistic world, and … the heritage can be discovered most fully when we practise education by conversation – seeking to know ourselves and others by engaging with the diverse traditions of Christianity and with the diverse traditions of other religious communities” (BJRE 17:2, pp. 71-72).

After all, isn’t the collegiate experience all about education by conversation? We come to know the other through conversation with the other and also grow to more fully understand ourselves.

I was sitting in the College of General Studies building lobby on Friday afternoon – 70 degrees, sunny, and gorgeous outside. Classes were letting out a little after 2pm, and nearly everyone was headed for a place outside. A young woman sat down at a table near me in the lobby, jean jacket, stylish shades, and venti Very Berry Hibiscus Starbucks refresher in hand. She looked the part of a person ready to enjoy a beautiful early spring day. However, she busied herself on her phone, waiting for something or someone. A few minutes later a young man also looks for a place to sit. He recognizes the young woman, she looks up from her phone, and he walks to her table. “We’re in class together?” He stammers the question. She smiles warmly, “Yeah.” A hand extended, a name offered, he introduces himself. They begin to chat. Eventually she invites him to sit. “Are you rushing? Everybody in class seems to be rushing.” “Um, no,” he replies, clearly hoping that was the right answer. “I didn’t know that was such a big thing here.” “I’m not rushing either,” she says. A sigh of relief. He concedes, “I’m just not into that.” Conversation continues. Eventually she shares that several women in her family went to BU and that it was always part of her awareness applying to schools. She speaks passionately about the institution’s history and commitment to social justice and accessibility for the common working person in Boston. An aunt got a degree while working full-time. She continues that she only applied to schools in New England. He applied to 15 schools across the country, BU and BC – got into both. “Oh, I didn’t apply to BC,” she says. He stops again. Perhaps, he said the wrong thing. But she continues and talks about the character of an institution. She didn’t have anything against BC, BU just represented the kind of institution she wanted to be a part of, a place which values diversity, a place where you can find a place to belong, and a place where anyone can improve their future. “That’s why I’m here.” They continue to chat.

I think to myself, “Wow, she’d make a great campus tour guide.” Their conversation continues, he learns more about BU, and she is at least entertained by his curiosity. Eventually he says, “I don’t think I have your number. We should hang out.” “I’d like that,” she responds as she types some digits in his phone.

Conversation is a constant part of college life. You meet new people. You learn new things; you learn about yourself, and sometimes you make a friend.

When we engage with the unfamiliar or the uncomfortable we learn a little bit more about ourselves. That’s why I left all of the lectionary readings in the liturgy this week. For some, one text or another is uncomfortable, awkward, or jarring. Psalm 99 has an abundance of masculine lordship language, itself at odds with the feminist commitments espoused by many members of the staff and regular folks in the pews, but it is interlaced with profound truths fundamental to the commitments of this community: “lover of justice, you have established equity” and “you were a forgiving God to them.” But that line is immediately followed with “[you are] an avenger of their wrongdoings.” What? Do we worship a God of wrath and judgement? (Plenty of Christians do.) What do we believe and why do we believe it? How do today’s readings trouble your notions of the divine? Is God a devouring fire? Is the Holy Spirit spoken by God? The images from the lessons today all ground the language and ingrained imagery of our tradition. We may find some useful, others not, but they are part of the tradition. Together the texts contribute to our collective Christian particularity and inform your own theological particularity.

Like many Methodists, I learned my theology through song. The sermon hymn today, which Justin Blackwell, our organist and Associate Director of Music, tells me is the most popular of the four or so Transfiguration hymns in the United Methodist Hymnal, frames the uniqueness of Jesus and Jesus’ relationship with God. It also provides a glimpse of what the Western Church has taught about the transfiguration for centuries:

From age to age the tale declares

how with the three disciples there

where Moses and Elijah meet,

the Lord holds converse high and sweet.

The law and prophets there have place,

two chosen witnesses of grace.

These lines from the Sarum Breviary, the variant of the Roman rite commonly used in the Diocese of Salisbury in England from the 11th to 16th centuries, allude to the principle teaching of the early church that this encounter among Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, signals that the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospels ought to be received and read in conversation with one another.

John Mason Neale, the 19th century Anglican priest and hymnwriter best known for his carol “Good King Wenceslas,” translated the disused Use of Salisbury and a number of other Latin, Greek, Russian, and Syrian liturgical texts into English. Much of the ancient liturgy we now sing in English is thanks to Rev. Neale. His translation continues:

With shining face and bright array,

Christ deigns to manifest that day

what glory shall be theirs above

who joy in God with perfect love.

These Sarum lines connect our future Heavenly glory-bodies of which Paul writes in Corinthians with Jesus’ appearance on the mountain. It is in his appearance we see the promise of resurrection.

The last line of the gospel pericope also more clearly reinforces the resurrection connection: “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” That line is also a truth claim in our Gospel today.

How do we navigate these Christian truth claims in a pluralistic world? Perhaps we scrutinize them in our encounter with the other. In conversation, we bring reason, tradition, and experience to bear on scripture, and we come to own what is good, real, and true in our texts.

Marsh Chapel is a lectionary-based liturgical experience. Week by week, we read through a three-year cycle of scriptural texts. However, the preacher may elect (and the dean often does) to include only a portion of the texts appointed for the day. Usually the lectionary includes a Hebrew Bible lesson, a selection from a New Testament epistle (or Acts), a Psalm (or portion of one), and a Gospel lesson. To explicate four, at best, loosely related, texts in about 20 minutes is a practical challenge. Often the dean’s 22.5 minutes is not even enough time to fully engage with one text let alone four. Your preacher today decided it better to invite you into conversation with each text – although truth be told, today’s lectionary lists two Psalms – Psalm 99 is the alternate text, the less common one – even if a full treatment of each text may escape his ability today.

By engaging with the diverse texts and traditions of Christianity and with the diverse traditions of other religious communities we come to know ourselves.

In 2 Peter 1:21, “First of all you must understand this, that no prophesy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophesy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God,” we are reminded of the campaign of our United Church of Christ friends, “God is still speaking.” Are we listening for the movement of the Spirit and recognizing God’s continuing movement in the world?

This chapel was constructed with the expectation that God was still speaking. A regular worshipper or listener knows the saints whose images adorn the clerestory windows of this sacred space: Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, John the Evangelist, Athanasius, Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Francis Asbury, Abraham Lincoln, and Frances Willard. Yes, Daniel Marsh even believed that God was speaking through a woman! It would take his denomination (my own) almost another two decades to get on board that women could and should have equal place with men in the church. But Frances Willard, like so many heroes is a complicated person, temperance leader, suffragette, and in Marsh’s day, the only woman to have a statue in the Capitol rotunda. However, she also tacitly encouraged racism and bigotry in the temperance and suffrage pamphlets and fliers her organizations produced. At a time when other leaders, women and men, worked for greater racial inclusion, she did very little to further that cause. She prophesied a land of inclusion and equality for women (but was that vision only for white women?). Part of her message was on point, part of it not. How does the reality her life and work square with our verse from 2 Peter today? Our conversation partners help us make sense of our scripture and the tradition we inherit.

Perhaps our particularity, our personal Christian theological particularity, changes over time, educated by conversation.

When I teach United Methodist polity, that is the organization, structure, and law of the denomination (contained in the Book of Discipline), I encounter a number of cradle United Methodist students preparing for a lifetime of (usually) itinerant service to the denomination. Many have been swaddled in the rhythms of church life and denominational jargon, but they often refer to themselves as “Methodist,” not “United Methodist.” When asked, “Why Methodist? Why not United Methodist?” The usual answer goes something like this, “Oh, it sounds so formal. It refers to the official body of the denomination. ‘Methodist’ is more generic, more general, more personal.” I often then ask if they have an affinity for John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement. Responses are often mixed. “Well, how about Phillip William Otterbein.” “Phillip who?” The name does not usually register unless they are from Ohio or Pennsylvania (or they have taken a United Methodist history class). Phillip William Otterbein, founder of the United Brethren in Christ, lifelong friend of Francis Asbury, the early American Methodist bishop. Otterbein, the German-speaking, university-educated immigrant minister who together with Martin Boehm, a German-speaking farmer-turned-minister, organized religious communities for the German immigrants of Pennsylvania and Ohio in the early 19th century. The same Otterbein, who with Boehm and Asbury, appears in the list of bishops of the United Methodist Church. When the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968, the lists of episcopal leaders merged, and Otterbein and Boehm found a place alongside Asbury, Thomas Coke, Richard Whatcoat, and Jacob Albright as founding episcopal leaders of our denomination. The tiny communities which dot the farmlands of Pennsylvania and Ohio still often have two United Methodist Churches, one historically Methodist Episcopal and one EUB. There are plenty of United Methodists who aren’t Wesleyans, in fact they don’t see themselves as Methodists. They are United Methodists, the product of a merged church, a big tent, where competing theological views are welcome, and where for almost 50 years we have agreed to disagree on many things. I share with students that I describe myself as “United Methodist” because I believe in a big tent church. Yes, I am personally “Methodist” in theology and practice but I have come to value and learn from the conversation partners I find within my own denomination – especially the non-Wesleyan ones.

A good conversation partner is someone with whom you can be honest about your particularity, whether that’s BU, BC, United Methodist, Lutheran, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.

Last week, I had the responsibility of communicating the morning announcements. I began in the usual fashion, “Good morning and welcome to Marsh Chapel. Whether you join us here in the nave at 735 Commonwealth Avenue by radio airwaves @ 90.9 WBUR or via the podcast, we are glad you are with us for a moment of pause, rest, and worship.” As I continued, I simply made that welcome a bit more specific: “As we strive to be a service in the service of the city – Boston – and a heart in the heart of the city, know that you are welcome here – immigrant, refugee, or 8th generation New Englander, black, brown, white, gay, straight, bi, trans, something else, or simply not sure. You are welcome here. Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green Party, Independent, you are welcome here.”

Anyone who listens regularly to the Sunday morning service knows that the Dean has worked over these last several years to cultivate a culture of genuine welcome and hospitality in the Marsh Chapel community. We are a multigenerational, multiethnic, politically and theologically diverse worshipping community, but sometimes we are not always explicit that “a welcome to all” means “all.”

We hope that you find the chapel to be a place where you can be honest about your particularity, find a receptive conversation partner, learn about their particularity, and also reflect on your own. Coffee hour after the service is an excellent opportunity for education by conversation – so is Monday night dinner, Create Space on Tuesdays, Wednesday School of Theology worship here in the nave, and Common Ground Communion on Thursdays out on Marsh Plaza. Find a good conversation partner here at Marsh Chapel, in one of your classes, at the AA meeting, in your candlepin league, or at your yoga class.

How are we to engage a pluralistic world?

Be honest about your own particularity and get an education by conversation about yourself and about the other.

Amen.

-the Reverend Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership Development

Resistance

Sunday, February 19th, 2017

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Matthew 5: 38-48

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Preface

         We pause for a moment this morning to listen to the Gospel of Matthew 5:39, and this morning’s three-point sermon upon it. (Either a three-point sermon, or three points in search of a sermon!) While there are easier sentences which might tempt us here in this reading, we shall listen to the hardest for interpreters, ‘Do not resist one who is evil’.

As today’s reading reminds us, we are from a deep, though intricately varied, ethical tradition that enshrines selfless love, Christo-centric love, cruciform love as the cherished ideal of human behavior. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies’.

We reflect this morning first on the personal dimension, second on the social dimension, and third on the contemporary dimension of our verse.

One: Personal Ethics

         Do not resist one who is evil. If anyone smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. Coat, cloak. One mile, two. If you love those who love you, what reward have you?

At the outset with these verses we shall stay with the heavy emphasis they clearly have on personal relationships, where the ice is thicker and we are safer. For an individual, alone and with no responsibilities to others, there are often options for self-less self-sacrifice.   Our own striking remembrances of times when we have seen this verse practiced restore us. Some examples:

A new Bishop came to us just after our first year in college. He loved golf, and would happily take a summer afternoon to play with some of his preachers, and sometimes their sons. This was a different era, before the entrance, in numbers, of women into the ministry, and before the more pronounced current separation of those superintending from those superintended. The general and district superintendents, it was more steadily them remembered, were simply ministers, fellow elders, assigned to different sorts of work. The color purple was not often in evidence. As one of the chief influences of our entrance into pastoral work, it is a supreme happiness to remember his kindness, his humility, and his example. I see him carefully washing hands, and then offering a prayer with 12 year olds at summer camp. There in memory he is carrying hymnals downstairs after he spoken on the district. We served him spaghetti in a modest New York apartment, and he was easy and at home.

One August he and three others were playing golf on a public course, in the heat. After the round all stopped for a soda in the club house—another era, well before Methodist clergy could drink a beer. At least in front of each other (and with the Bishop). Another group asked if they had seen a putter one had left behind. My friend Gordon Knapp remembers: we enjoyed a cold drink after a round, a foursome at a nearby table muttered and groused about Joe and me not picking up one of their clubs that lay near a green. I was getting hot. Not Joe. He got up and walked to the far side of the course to see if the club was still there. Not finding it, he returned without saying a word to our mouthy detractors. I have always looked upon this incident as a marvelous lesson in practical Christianity.

         Perhaps you too had a grandmother who baked cherry pies on February 22. The cherry tree myth is the most well-known and longest enduring legend about our first president, George Washington, whose birthday we honor this week. We have remembered James Baldwin and Frederik Douglass, and have sung with Charles Tindlay this month. We also have recalled Lincoln and Washington. “In the original story, when Washington was six years old he received a hatchet as a gift and damaged his father’s cherry tree. When his father discovered what he had done, he became angry and confronted him. Young George bravely said, “I cannot tell a lie…I did cut it with my hatchet.” Washington’s father embraced him and rejoiced that his son’s honesty was worth more than a thousand trees.”

         In one suburban neighborhood a young family worked hard and were disappointed by the results of the autumn elections. Their windows and lawn were adorned with campaign material. You knew where they stood. When the snow came, an older neighbor one block away, who had a new snow blower, and some extra time, plowed out his neighbors’ sidewalks and driveways. By accident, at a holiday party, the young family learned that their kind plowman had voted for and staunchly supported the opposing party. The snow removal is still going on.

         But we need to be careful here, even here where the ice is pretty thick. The words here are plural in command (you plural must not resist) and singular in object (one who is or does evil). The teaching applies to individual behavior, though it is given to all. What you may be free to do or not to do, on your own, is not a freedom available to groups, institutions and societies. Niebuhr teaches us: An individual may sacrifice his own interests, either without hope of reward or in the hope of an ultimate compensation. But how is an individual, who is responsible for the interests of a group, to justify the sacrifice of interests other than his own…No one has a right to be unselfish with other people’s interests…Fewer risks can be taken with community interests than with individual interests…To some degree the conflict between the purest individual morality and an adequate political policy must therefore remain (Moral Man and Immoral Society, 269-273).

Two: Social Ethics

         The harder question, and the spot on the pond where the ice gets thin, or at least thinner, is ‘how far the principle can be applied to groups, and especially political life’ (IB loc cit). Our recognition that the dominant alto\tenor voices of the early church and evangelist, expecting the very soon return of Christ, and hence shading this ethic as an interim ethic (we this winter rely on Albert Schweitzer and Amos Wilder here), may help us. Here is a ringing question placed against the ethic of retaliation that dates to Hammurabi, to Roman Law, to Aeschylus, and is epitomized in the lex talionis, eye and tooth. Resist not., says 5: 39.

Especially, how shall we hear this verse in relation to the brief span of human history given to our keeping? While there are easier applications, we shall today head straight into the hardest, the Christian ethical teaching on the place of military might. It needs no particular emphasis, today, to recognize that behind the furry and flurry of daily news—cable news that should have less viewership, major newspapers that need more calm and balance, millennials and baby boomers both who need fewer protests and more projects–there looms the prospect, ever present across the globe, of armed conflict. Matthew 5:39 says ‘resist not’. So how shall hear this verse?

Over 20 centuries, and speaking with unforgivable conciseness as one must in a twenty-minute sermon, two basic understandings of war and peace have emerged in Christian thought. As you know, these roughly can be called the so-called pacifist and just war understandings.

Pacifism preceded its sibling, and infinitely extends to all times the interim ethic of the Sermon on the Mount (which even here in Matthew, a late writing, expects that the coming of Christ will soon make moot our ethical dilemmas, and so tends to err on the side of quietism, or, in the case of arms, pacifism): “to him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also”. Many utterly saintly Christian women and men have and do honor this understanding with their selfless commitment, including many in this congregation today. My own pulpit hero, Ernest Fremont Tittle, the best Methodist preacher of the 20th century, did so from his Chicago pulpit through the whole Second World War. My namesake Allan Knight Chalmers did so in pulpit and classroom near the same time, here in Boston. Think about that for a minute. While personally I have not been able, to this date anyway, to agree with them, I never compose a sermon on this topic without wondering, and to some degree fearing, what their judgment might be.

The multiple theories of just war, or war as the least of all evil alternatives, have developed since the Fourth Century and the writing of St. Augustine. Here the command to “be merciful, even as God is merciful” is understood tragically to include times when mercy for the lamb means armed opposition to the wolf. The New Testament apocalyptic frame and its interim ethic are honored, to be sure, but supplemented with the historic experience of the church through the ages. Many utterly saintly Christian men and women have honored this understanding with their selfless commitment, including some present here today, and some who are not present because they gave their lives that others might live.   Just war thought includes several serious caveats. We together need to know and recall these, in five forms: a just cause in response to serious evil, a just intention for restoration of peace with justice, an absence of self-enrichment or desire for devastation, a use as an utterly last resort, a claim of legitimate authority, and a reasonable hope of success, given the constraints of “discrimination” and “proportionality” (usually understood as protection of non-combatants). Response. Restoration. Restraint. Last resort. Common authority.

Prayerfully, we each and we all will want to consider our own understanding, our own ethic, our own choice and choices between these two basic alternatives. But the careful listener this February of 2017 will want a thought or two about how, together, as those who influence culture together, we might positively and proactively live out Matthew 5:39. Our age and world are embedded with nuclear weaponry, which with luck thus far, since 1945, has not been used. But, as one wrote last week, ‘luck is not a plan and luck tends to run out’. We are keenly aware, as well, that in a nuclear age, the temperament, judgment, and character of those in positions of dispositive power, are crucial. We are aware, as well, of the influence for good and ill that leadership carries, including the power to shred inherited, longstanding forms of etiquette, diplomacy, and culture, on a daily basis. We are well to remember that the wise primary impetus for globalization is not economics but security.

Three: Resisting Resentment

         So far, in this sermon, we have offered, first, a qualified application of our verse to personal ethics and, second, a qualified separation of the verse from literal use in social ethics.   Third, what does the verse call for, through us, today?

We will pause now to welcome a visitor to our service. Welcome. You will find him to my right, and down the west aisle of the chapel. He is standing alone, and has been with us before. Actually, his worship attendance at Marsh Chapel has been perfect for 60 years, a far better record than he had in life. For he is enshrined in one of our Connick stained glass windows, one of the many novel choices the fourth President of Boston University, Daniel Marsh, made in designing our chapel. Abraham Lincoln may be able to offer us some assistance today, on President’s weekend.

In the fall of 1858, two men as different as life and death stood beside each other on debate platforms in Illinois. To the right was the carefully groomed, smooth speaking, dapperly dressed Senator Stephen Douglas. To his left, looking like a bumpkin, stood a gangly, homely man, overly tall and saddled with a high pitched, irritating voice. They debated for the heart of the country, and Lincoln lost. In his career he lost and lost and lost. In 1858 he lost, even though virtually every point he made in his speeches proved true. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Accustomed to trample on the rights of others you have lost the genius of your own independence. Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves. True, true, true. He won in 1860, but in 1862 his party was thrashed (he said, ‘I am too big to cry and too badly hurt to laugh’), in 1863 the horror of Gettysburg quickened his finest address, in 1864, challenged by his own subordinate, he barely won, and in 1865, on Good Friday, he too was dead. Lincoln spoke of his country in the soaring phrase, ‘the last, best hope’. Lincoln exemplified a life-long resistance to resentment. He got up and tried again, time after time. He did not let the inevitable resentments of life stymie him.

Lincoln resisted resentment. Sometimes it is better to have patience than brains. If we can restrain ourselves, in the future, from making scapegoats of some in order furiously to retaliate against other hidden foes, that is, we shall find that the community of peoples will see in us a last best hope. We may model, as a people, a path forward into a time of freedom, pluralism, toleration, compromise, and peace. Here Lincoln holds a key for us, a dream and hope of ‘malice toward none’.

We may be entering an Epoch of Spiritual Discipline Against Resentment. Here I simply refer to a great American and a greater historian, Christopher Lasch, and his rumination on the work of Reinhold Niebuhr:

The only way to break the ‘endless cycle’ of injustice, Niebuhr argued, was nonviolent coercion, with its spiritual discipline against resentment. In order to undermine an oppressor’s claims to moral superiority, (one) has to avoid such claims on their own behalf.

         Again, in the confines of a sermon, I can only sketch. Lasch’s essay distilled this theme, a spiritual discipline against resentment, from the lives and writings of Niebuhr, but also from Martin Luther King, the Boston Personalists, and many others.   He saw, as we too may see in the Matthean passage earlier read, the necessity of holding at bay those deeply human sentiments that easily, and tragically, attach themselves to us when we are fearful, attacked, and violated. For a future to emerge that is more than simply a repetition of the patterns of the past, a people must develop a ‘spiritual discipline against resentment’.

What is this discipline? What does it look like? How is one to find its power? Truly I see no other source than a confessional reliance on the Christ of Calvary, and no better reading than the one we heard a moment ago. Frederik Douglass: “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”

         A Spiritual Discipline against Resentment. It is quotidian, tedious work, and will take up the next decade. It was the genius of Isaiah Berlin, with whom we conclude, which best bespoke this wise admonition to a discipline against resentment:

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.

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

The Bach Experience

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

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Matthew 5: 21-37

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Hill 

A.1. ‘This third cantata of Marsh Chapel’s Bach Experience continues the overarching theme of arrivals that permeate the four cantatas this season: in the fall, we celebrated the birthday of John the Baptist and the Ascension of Mary; in April, we will celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. This morning features Bach’s Cantata, composed for the Feast of the Purification and first performed on 2 February 1725. The Purification commemorates Mary’s return to the Temple forty days after giving birth to Jesus in accordance with Mosaic law; the sense of Jesus’ arrival is crystallized, however, by the words of Simeon, whose prophecy of death soon after meeting the Messiah has remained one of the most enduring poetic and musical texts in all of Christianity. Those words, also known by the Latin Nunc dimittis, are set here by Bach in a combination of Martin Luther’s chorale translation and an anonymous libretto’s extrapolation of the corresponding chorale verses’ themes, a technique we have seen in the other chorale cantatas’ (from today’s notes).

A.2. For a moment, let us hear Matthew in concert with all the gospels.  They are each very different, but in the acclamation of resurrection and cross, they partly converge.  So the grace and power of Bach this morning, are amply justified:  ’(The Gospel writer) himself had a vision overwhelming enough to eliminate the painful and humiliating aspects of Jesus’ passion and to replace them with signs of exaltation and glory, so as to compress the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday into a single momentous happening, the defeat of the prince of this world and the victory of Christ’ 193 (Ashton).  Recall  Matthew, and his community of faith:

A.3.Conscious as they were of the continuing presence in their midst of the Glorified One, no wonder the community, or rather the evangelist who was its chief spokesman, smoothed out the rough edges of the traditions of the historical Jesus and expanded the ‘points into stars’…(His portrait of Jesus) arose from his constant awareness, which shared with members of his community, that they were living in the presence of the Glorified One.  So dazzling was this glory that any memory of a less-than-glorious Christ was altogether eclipsed…(They) realized that the truth that they prized as the source of their new life was to be identified not with the Jesus of history but with the risen and glorious Christ, and that this was a Christ free from all human weakness.  The claims they made for him were at the heart of the new religion that soon came to be called Christianity. (199)  The… portrait of Christ …is best accounted for by the experience of the glorious Christ constantly present to him and his community (204). (John Ashton, op. cit)

A.4.  Beloved, the Sermon on the Mount is an interim ethic, meant first and foremost for those to whom Jesus preached and with whom Matthew taught.  These words, Matthew 5: 21 and following, fit a time when intense expectation predicted the culmination of history in apocalypse, the end of time, not sometime, but Thursday after lunch, or Friday morning.  Hence the stark hyperbole here.  Hence the rigorous ethic here, pending the eschaton, a teaching ad interim, awaiting, soon and very soon, the return of the Lord.  We know hyperbole when we hear it, eyes plucked and hands cut off and so on, no matter the witness of Origen.  We know also the wrestling with hard choices, here cast in first century white heat, as in the stricture against divorce, though even here with a caveat, for with Scripture and tradition who know and affirm the need on occasion for divorce, for the sake of the institution of marriage itself.  These words from 85ad are not meant to be taken out of 2000 years on ice, only to let them thaw and eat them raw.  Sickness would ensue.  No, they need preparation, cooking, heating, seasoning, and careful presentation.  Originalist interpretation is as much a failed project in biblical hermeneutics as it is in constitutional law.

A.5.Glory! As F.C. Baur put it: ‘The essence of Christianity is the revelation of the glory of God in the only Son of the Father, the fullness of his grace and truth disclosed in him who was made flesh—wherein all the imperfections, limits, and negativity of the law…are absolutely transcended’ (204).  What has the Bach Cantata, in all its glory, today to say of and too this all?

 

Dr. Scott Jarrett

B.1. Today’s cantata explores not just Salvation by faith, but the extraordinary Wonder of the Light of Christ come to save. Written for the Feast of the Purification of Mary, Bach’s anonymous librettist focuses on the wonderful story of Simeon’s encounter with the Christ child in the Temple – the lesson from ten days ago in our calendar.

B.2. The opening movement is as solemn as it is elegant. Set in a dance-like 12/8 time, this e minor opening chorus might remind the listener of the famous opening chorus of the Matthew Passion. The movement’s motives are heard first in dialogue between the solo flute and oboe before other instruments and voices have their chance at the melody. The Chorale itself was well-known to Bach’s listeners, and his special treatment of the phrases toward the end dealing with the Calm and Quiet of Death’s eternal sleep surely wouldn’t have gone without notice.

B.3. The central portion of the cantata sets two arias and two recitatives. And as we might expect, the theological journey moves from the most personal to the corporate, indeed global. Perhaps the most astonishing movement in Cantata 125, Bach’s aria for alto soloist is also the longest clocking in at nearly eleven minutes. The aria is scored for solo flute and oboe, with a lightly pulsating continuo line, and Bach indicates that the keyboard player is not to outline any of the harmonies, but simply double the cello part. The flute and oboe begin as a duet, but the inclusion of the alto solo completes a trinity of highly ornamented concertists. With an obvious nod in the libretto to Simeon’s old and failing eyes, the light of Salvation at having seen his Savior shines clear. Here Bach draws us in to his remarkable sound world – delicate and suspended as we ponder the Wonder of our Salvation.

B.4. By intentional contrast, the bass soloist stirs us from this enthralling music in an accompanied recitative that weaves both libretto and Luther texts in a well-hewn sermon. The wonder of the Light of Salvation takes on a new opulence in a fantastic duet for tenor and bass in which the Light of Christ shines as a global radiance, an “unfathomable and uncreated Treasure of Goodness” – not just for Simeon and Bach’s Lutherans – but a universal assurance of grace.

 

The Rev. Dr. Robert Hill 

C.1.  On a Cantata day devoted to arrivals, where are we, and at what portal do we arrive? We are looking back, now, on a decade of progress, across this land of the free and home of the brave:  cultural freedom, economic progress, recession bailout, gulf cleanup, attempted bipartisanship, gay marriage, expansive health care, immigration prudence, measured peace, renewable energy, supported community colleges, presidential grace, rhetorical excellence, wars ended, a Nobel Prize, some racial progress, opposition to guns, a denuclearized Iran, Paris climate accords, international respect, personal perseverance, presence in trauma (here in Boston too), and exemplary leadership.  But now we are looking forward, now, to a decade of laborious redress:  With students at BU—Be You—we will need to be: bold, kind, tough, wise, true, lean, strong, good, sharp, smart.  But when?  And then, how? Matthew is concerned with false prophets and false brethren, in five parts: discipleship, apostleship, hidden revelation, church administration, judgment.  We shall need the sense of glory, of joyful transcendence, of abandon, of play—yes even that found in the aftermath, say, of a fifth Superbowl—to empower and nourish us along the hard path of the next decade, a decade of humiliation that may lead to humility, a decade of crucial but tedious committee level leadership development that may lead to progress, a decade of gradual recognition, slowly, on the part of millennials and baby boomers together, that culture matters, civil society matters, organizations matter, institutions matter.  And so do votes.

C.2. Late last Sunday night the words of Peter Berger, a generation ago, may have come to mind:  ‘Both in practice and in theoretical thought, human life gains the greatest part of its richness from the capacity for ecstasy, by which I do not mean the alleged experiences of the mystic, but any experience stepping outside the taken for granted reality of everyday life, any openness to the mystery that surrounds us on all sides.  A philosophical anthropology worthy of the name will have to regain a perception of these experiences, and with this regain a metaphysical dimension.  The theological method suggested here as a possibility will contribute to this rediscovery of ecstasy and metaphysics as crucial dimensions of human life, and by the same token to the recovery of lost riches of both experience and thought’  (A Rumor of Angels, 94). Such ecstasy makes space for generosity.

C.3 In fact, and in conclusion, the eye of the Lord today rests for a moment upon a genuine generosity.  You are generous people!  If we follow his gaze our eyes too may rest for a moment upon genuine generosity.  We too by the lenses of the Scripture may for a moment see what Jesus sees, imagine what he imagines, today.  His vision may shape our own.  Then in his light we may see light.  Follow in the mind’s eye for a moment the angle of vision, the dominical angle of vision, now registered for us and all time in St. Matthew’s generous gospel, Chapter 5.  Hum the tune, some months after Christmastide:  Do you see what he sees?  He sees and honors genuine generosity.  Can we do otherwise?  The next time you are tempted, as you consider a generous act, to think that no one sees, that no one shares, that no fruit falls, remember today’s gospel, be reconciled…then come and offer your gift.  Follow the eye of the Lord, resting for a moment today on generosity.  He teaches us about visible generosity.  He delights us with religious generosity.  He persuades us of the power of generosity.

C.4.  Such generosity as had our 16th President, whom, this February 12th, we may recall, just weeks before his death.  As Lincoln put it: (March 4, 1865 (in passim))

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first…On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it…Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came…

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Invitation to Discipleship (the Rev. Dr. Robert Hill and Dr. Scott Jarrett)

Rev. Dr. Hill:  Whence cometh our help?

Dr. Jarrett:   From the Lord who made heaven and earth.  The Creator.  The Ground of Being.  The God beyond God.  The invisible, unknowable, unutterable, unattainable.  The first, the last beyond all thought.  The Transcendent.

Rev. Dr. Hill:  What is the point of our lives?

Dr. Jarrett:  To worship God and glorify God forever.

Rev. Dr. Hill:  How is this possible, in the face of silence, darkness, mystery, accident, pride, immaturity, tragedy and the threat of meaninglessness?

Dr. Jarrett:  By walking in the dark with our Transforming Friend, the Transcript in Time of who God is in eternity, the gift of the Father’s unfailing grace, our beacon not our boundary, the presence of the absence of God, Jesus Christ our Kyrios.

Rev. Dr. Hill: Given our failures, our gone-wrongness, our sin, what daily hope have we, as those who hope for what we do not see?

Dr. Jarrett:  Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  Where there is freedom, there is promise.  There is a self-correcting Spirit of Truth loose in the universe.  There is a self-correcting Spirit of Truth loose in the universe.

Rev. Dr. Hill:  How do we follow the trail of the Spirit?

Dr. Jarrett:  By tithing, by ordered Sunday worship, by honest faithfulness in our relationships.

 -Dr. Scott Jarrett, Director of Music and

The Reverend Dr. Robert Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

Communion Meditation: Ad Interim

Sunday, February 5th, 2017

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Matthew 5:13-20

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Preface

‘Is this not the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice?’

‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’

James Baldwin spoke, eloquently, of the death of the heart.

We are both and landing pad and a launching pad here at Marsh Chapel.  Rev. Holly Benzenhaver has guided our quiet prayer, faithfully and gently, before Sunday worship.  Now she goes to work for a time with the First Baptist Church of Needham.  We send her off with blessings and best wishes, and wish her well, grateful for her gifts in ministry with us.  Each of us by baptism is given gifts for and invited into forms of ministry.  How would you currently describe yours?

There are many ways of keeping faith.  In my Father’s house there are many rooms.  The world’s varied religious traditions cradle treasures, precious and distinct.  At birth, our nation affirmed this.  We are a country founded by immigrants.  Founded by immigrants fleeing religious persecution.  By immigrants fleeing religious persecution and seeking religious freedom.  Immigrants fleeing religious persecution, seeking religious freedom, and determined to expand the circle of that freedom to include others, many, all.  The sights, symbols, sounds, statues, and landmarks of Boston, of New England, stand in sharp contrast to our current, gratuitously cruel, ban on some immigrants.  We know better.  This is not who we are.  We are invited to be rememberers not forgetters, to receive fresh every morning a newly remembered gospel, a gospel that in a word is love.  One such Boston, or New England, reminder is found in the love of Amos Wilder.

Our Town

Our guide ‘ad interim’ today is Amos Wilder.

Following, though, the longstanding advisement, in preaching, to move from the familiar to the different, we perhaps could start with his brother.

Perhaps know him, or his name, through his brother, Thornton, who wrote OUR TOWN, including the letter addressed to the ‘Mind of God’ and delivered all the same, including Emily and George and love and death, and including the graveyard out of which Emily travels to return to the land of the living on her 12th birthday, February 11, 1899.

Recall Wilder’s Emily Webb returning from the dead.  She asks, just once, to return to Grovers’ Corners, to see and hear and taste and touch and feel.  “Choose the least important day in your life.  It will be important enough.”  She picks her 12th birthday, at dawn, early in the morning.

Three days snow, in Grover’s Corners.  Main Street, the drug store.  Mr. Webb coming home on the night train from Hamilton College.  Howie Newsome, the policeman.  Mrs. Webb (“how young she looks!  I didn’t know Mama was ever that young”).  10 below zero.

I can’t find my blue ribbon

Open your eyes dear.  I laid it out for you.

If it were a snake it would bite you.

The milk man arrives.  Mr.  Webb kisses Mrs. Webb.  Don’t forget Charles it’s Emily’s birthday.

I’ve got something right here.  Where is she?  Where’s my birthday girl?

Breakfast, early in the morning, in New Hampshire:   ‘A very happy birthday to you.  There are some surprises on the kitchen table.  But birthday or no birthday I want you to eat your breakfast good and slow.

I want you to grow up and be a good, strong girl.

That blue paper is from your Aunt Carrie

And I reckon you can guess who brought the post-card album

I found it on the doorstep when I brought in the milk–George Gibbs.

Chew that bacon good and slow.  It’ll keep you warm on a cold day.’

‘O Mama, look at me one minute as though you really saw me.  Mama 14 years have gone by.  I’m dead.  You’re a grandmother Mama.  I married George Gibbs.  Wally’s dead too.  His appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway.  We felt just terrible about it–don’t you remember?  But, just for a moment now we’re all together, Mama.  Just for a moment we’re happy.  LET’S LOOK AT ONE ANOTHER’

‘So all that was going on and we never noticed.  Grover’s Corners.  Mama and Papa. Clock’s ticking. Sunflowers.  Food and coffee.  New ironed dresses and hot baths.  Sleeping and waking up.  Earth! You are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.

And earlier in the play…

REBECCA:
I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her
minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America.
GEORGE:
What’s funny about that?
REBECCA:
But listen, it’s not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God–that’s what it said on the envelope.
GEORGE:
What do you know!
REBECCA:
And the postman brought it just the same.
GEORGE:
What do you know!

Amos Wilder

“Amos Wilder occupies a unique position in American literary history, combining the vocations of poet and scholar, critic and pastor. He brought together the heritage of the Bible with the visions of the 20th century. His wartime experience recorded in his early poetry opened him up to the catastrophic depths of humanity, while his vision of hope, derived from his biblical story, allowed him to press beyond the negative limits of his time. His poetic eye enabled him to see connections between the Bible and literature, the Kingdom of God and modern ethics, religious experience and contemporary symbols.” (the source of this citation has been lost)

He knew and reminds us that the Gospel, in the freezer for 2000 years, cannot merely be taken out, to let it thaw then eat it raw.  It needs cooking, seasoning, preparation, and presentation.

Poet and Scholar.  Professor and Pastor.  Mind and heart.  Reason and Imagination.  Amos Wilder, across most of the 20th century lived a unity of that pair so long disjoined, and disjoined to the harm of both:  learning and piety.

A child in China.  A student at Oberlin, Oxford, Yale.  A minister in North Conway.  A teacher at Harvard.  To begin to embrace the Good about us, in us, around us, sustaining us—the good from all sides which we shall need gently to continue to nurture over the next decade of humility acquired through humiliation, national humility acquired through national humiliation—we shall need both in full.  Salt and light.  Salt and light.  Salt and light.

Here is his poem, about the modest wedding of a poor couple, in the Conway parsonage, during a snowstorm:

Wedding

Brother and sister in this world’s poor family,

Jack and Jill out of this gypsy camp of earth,

Here is where the injustice is greatest

And you feel it obscurely,

And you have a right to storm within yourselves

And seek sanctuary in one another’s shabbiness.

 

This boy and this girl with all their abandonment and futility,

Folly and dereliction,

Whirled from ignominy to ignominy,

Condemned to all the wretched chores of the community-

O tribute of forlorn humanity! Come for his benediction whom they have

blasphemed,

And somehow sense that they touch- what?

God, the Higher, all that they have missed:

Innocence and mercy and compassion.

 

Poor lad, scoured from humiliation to humiliation,

Pressed by dirt and danger, squalor and exhaustion,

And bred in blasphemy and the poison of men’s bitter spirit,

And the maudline imaginations of their lust;

Where else could it end but in this makeshift marriage?

And well may you storm within yourself,

at the same time that you feel the awe of it

God and the devil both have a hand in joining you

And you are hardly at fault.

 

Poor sister in our earth’s poor family,

Stupid and stupified and hallowed all at once,

Poor creature of poor moments,

Disinherited Eve,

How else could it come out but in the tumble of that first assault,

And yet God has put his finger on even this.

 

No bridesmaids nor flowers for you,

The groom hasn’t given you these.

You came in an old coat.

One of the gang is best man and witness,

The boy minister goes through with it,

And there is no shower as you go out.

The sleigh waits outside in the heavy snowfall.

It is movie night in the village, and no one

is about to spy you at the parsonage,

And so you go off in the blizzard to the lumber camps.

This is all the world gives you.

 

But the Son of Man of the wedding feast haunts such occasions

and understands you.

He can turn water into wine and such shame and loss into gain

In some world some time;

 

Lucy Hanks bore Nancy seven years before her marriage feast.

The Son of Man knows too well what the hells are,

and the dumb wonderings and sicknesses of the soul,

And he is the only one who does know.

So endure these gust and whirlwinds of the night until the morning breaks.

 

I heard the organ roll behind the snowfall

and saw in it the confetti of the heavenly bride chamber,

Glimpsed the sons of the bride chamber rejoicing

In that City which is full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof,

Before the Father whose face the angels of

little children do always behold.

The Healing Waters: Poems 1943.

(I am indebted to my friend the Rev. Joe Bassett for acquaintance with this poem and better acquaintance with Amos Wilder).

“The appreciation of the depths and multi-dimensionality of language led Wilder to reject any reductionist interpretation of biblical material. In order to understand the historical evidence of the first century imagination and heart, Wilder employed a wide-ranging mode of interpretation, using literary criticism, social psychology, the studies of archetypes and folklore, and anthropology.

Wilder’s inclusive mode of interpretation differed from other New Testament scholars, particularly in the relation of scripture to social ethics. In contrast to the existentialist position of Rudolf Bultmann,  Wilder maintained that an individualistic approach did not do justice to the full dimensions of the New Testament message. For Wilder the revelation of God comes through the New Testament’s varied symbols and myths, which need to be interpreted in their socio-historical context. Once interpreted, these mythological expressions can speak to the social dimension of faith.”

Wilder, as New Testament Scholar, Teacher, Pastor, and Preacher, could combine the rational and the imaginative, the scientific and the humanistic, history and mythology.   His mind and heart were formed in the furnace of WWI. His voice is yours, New England.  He knew personally and well Albert Schweitzer, whose understanding of our passage as an ‘interim ethic’, governed by the expected closeness of the coming kingdom, itself reigns, to this day.  ‘Resist not’ is meant for the time being, for the time Jesus lived and stretched out to when Matthew wrote.  It is meant for a particular time, but not for all time.  For all time, and for our time, we have the staggering responsibility to fit the teaching to a new era, another epoch.  Whether or not ethics is situational, it is certainly epochal.  Our response and resistance to a megalomaniacal Presidential regime can be guided by but not directed by these precious verses of Holy Scripture.  Their application is, to use a marvelous American idiom, ‘up to you’.

Ad Interim

So.  Here is what Amos Wilder, our guide, whose brother, Thornton, is the more familiar, will now say to us, about the Sermon on the Mount:  

Jesus meant the requirements very explicitly…but the radical formulation of the requirements is to be explained by the imminence of the kingdom of God.  The judgment was immediately at hand and an extraordinary ethic was proper for an extraordinary emergency.  We have then in Schweitzer’s term ‘interim-ethics’ immediately relevant only to Jesus’ disciples in the brief period before the end…his insight that the teaching is significantly governed by the drawing near of the new age is today generally accepted. (IBD 161)The teaching comes out of a small world, a rural and small town society of a comparatively simple kind, in a semitropical climate.  Nietzsche, Marx, Others decry it.  Give to him who begs from you (Luther: but not what he asks for).  As did Matthew, we are under obligation to appropriate (Jesus’ words) in a free and responsible way, applying them to our own situation…bearing in mind the disparity between his situation and ours (IBD 164) (Amos Wilder).  

Wilder knew Schweitzer from time shared in England, at Mansfield College.   They corresponded for years.  Wilder’s little church in Conway, New Hampshire—from which town brother Thornton collected scenes and stories, including Huie Newsome’s death from appendicitis on a Scout hike—holds letters from and plaque honoring Schweitzer, or so I am told.

Later in the month, we shall assay to understand a specific portion of the Sermon the Mount, under the aspect of this perspective on ‘interim ethics’.

Coda

‘Is this not the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice?’

‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’

We turn now, together, toward the communion table.  Those on the launching pad and those on the landing pad do so together.  We gather at the table of remembrance.  We gather at the table of thanksgiving.  We gather at the table of presence.  We enjoy together a sense of meaning.  We enjoy together a feeling of belonging.  We enjoy together an intimation of empowerment.  We enjoy together an experience of community.

Together, in communion meditation.

The first task of the church is not to speak but to be the church, a community, where object lessons in Christian life and faith are given unintentionally…The effective way of evangelism is to be the church and to pioneer in the field of social relationship and community service. The gospel is not good advice, but good news (Hoekendeijk).

Let us break bread together on our knees.

-The Reverend Dr. Robert Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel