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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

For The Time Being

Sunday, January 29th, 2017

Click here to hear the full service

Matthew 5:1-12

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Preface

He is the Way

Follow Him through the land of unlikeness

You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures

 

He is the Truth

Seek Him in the kingdom of anxiety

You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years

 

He is Life

Love him in the world of the flesh

And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

For the Time Being

For now.  For the time being.  Whether or not ethics are situational, they are certainly epochal.  Each time, each season brings another climate for decision, for life.

New occasions teach new duties

Time makes ancient good uncouth

One must upward still and onward

Who would keep abreast of truth

A woman in pregnancy knows for sure the arrival of another epoch—for the time being.   A student in the struggle winter of freshman year, when novelty has given way to normalcy, and autumn to snow, knows for sure the arrival of another epoch—for the time being.  A nation which has swung by political pendulum from liberal left to hard right, on the basis of 77,000 votes along the country roads of three states, knows for sure the arrival of another epoch—for the time being.  A man in Shakespeare’s seventh stage, or nearing it, sans sight sans hearing sans agility sans memory sans sleep sans energy, knows for sure the arrival of another epoch—for the time being.   Our conditions condition our decisions, epoch by epoch—for the time being.

For the time being, we shall want daily to recall Emma Lazarus and Martin Neimoller, to remember who and whose we are, in promise and in warning.

Lazarus:  

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door

Neimoller:

First they came for the (Communists, Socialists, Trade Unionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews ) and I did not speak out because I was not a (Communist, Socialist, Trade Unionist, Jehovah’s Witness, Jew )

Then at last they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out

We have left St. Luke, now, to follow the trail of Jesus’ life, death and destiny, this year, in the Gospel of Matthew.   Matthew relies on Mark, and then also on a teaching document called Q, along with Matthew’s own particular material, of which our reading today is an example.  He has divided his Gospel into five sequential parts, a careful pedagogical rendering, befitting his traditional role as teacher, in contrast to Luke ‘the physician’, whose interest was history.   We have moved from history to religion, from narrative to doctrine.  Matthew is ordering the meaning of the history of the Gospel, while Luke is ordering the history of the meaning of the Gospel.  You have moved from the History Department to the Religion Department.  Matthew has his own perspective.

Every word 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 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’.   And this will be difficult.  Policies we can adjust.  Fear mongering we must resist.

‘A literary work or a fragment of tradition is a primary source for the historical situation out of which it arose, and is only a secondary source for the historical details for which it gives information’ (45).  (Wellhausen.)

Some of that perspective involves a developing and developed Christology, an understanding of Christ.  Matthew is apparently fighting on two fronts, both against the fundamental conservatives to the right, and against the spiritual radicals to the left.  In Matthew, Gospel continues to trump tradition, as in Paul, but tradition itself is a bulwark to defend the Gospel, as in Timothy.  Matthew is trying to guide his part of the early church, between the Scylla of the tightly tethered and the Charibdis of the tether-less. Our forebears taught us so.  That is, with Matthew, they wanted to order the meaning of the history of the gospel.  They aspired to do so by opposition to indecency and indifference.  They attempted to do so by attention both to conscience and to compassion.

For example:  we enter now a reading and rendering of the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the most beloved and best remembered of Jesus’ teachings.   At the outset, we face a raging river to cross.  For when were these teachings meant?  For all time, for Jesus’ time, for Matthew’s time, for our time—for the time being?

It Means What it Does

In July of 1976, a small congregation gathered just up the hill from New Hope Mills, a pancake flour maker, an old grist mill.  That Methodist church had endured the fumblings of an untrained, unordained minister all summer.  One Sunday he mistakenly, errantly left his sermon, titled, ‘Forgiveness’, across the road in the parsonage.  Mumbling something about forgiving and forgetting, he left the pulpit and hustled across the road to retrieve the homily, as the choir, four in number, soprano in voice, sang several favorite verses of In the Garden, in any case a weekly occurrence. A cow mooed in the field beside the church.  Later that week, he stopped to see the young family of the volunteer Fire Chief in New Hope.  It happened that short comment, innocuous, had been made about fire protection, in the sermon.  To what remarkable end that illustration may have been sent out, we know not, remember not.  Said the wife, “John and I heard your sermon very clearly on Sunday, and, taking it to heart, have decided that he will quit his role as chief and resign from the department”.   The sermon, sadly, meant nothing of the kind, in the preacher’s intention, in his heart of hearts, in his preacherly imagination.  But the sermon means what it does, not what its intention meant.  The preacher is responsible, not for what he says, but for what he is heard to say.  What it means is not what it meant but it what it does. We clarified in conversation, what was misspoken in homily:  a note to the wise about the critical importance of visitation, and the critical homiletical need to avoid misunderstanding if at all possible.  The sermon’s meaning is not in the purified intentions of the preacher, but in what it means—what it does—in life.  Are children thereby baptized?  Do any learn to tithe?  Do newcomers receive welcome into worship?  Is God glorified?  Have you fruit?  But Mr. Wesley, I meant well.  But did you do well?

‘What it means is what it does’—act, word, speech, deed, all.  This year has provided an expensive way for 340 million people to learn a first lesson in biblical hermeneutics and theological interpretation.   You voted.  You may have meant one thing.  The meaning of your word or deed is something else.  The road to hell is paved with—good intentions.  We don’t need to recount as much as we need to recant.  Jeremiah, it appears was right:  you only learn humility on the far side of humiliation.

And now, for the time being, we will simply have to live it through.  Not all order is godly, especially when purchased with the counterfeit currency of oppression and injustice.  But a quiet and peaceable life itself requires order, and when we have such, we are right to give thanks.   Especially in the later New Testament writings there is preserved for us a mature recognition of the value in things done ‘decently and in order’.  The body.  Birds of the air. Lilies of the field.  Reminders of what Marilyn Robinson might call ‘the givenness of things’.  

A Common Longing

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our warming globe, caught in climate change, will be cooled by cooler heads and calmer hearts and careful minds.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our dangerous world, armed to the teeth with nuclear proliferation, will find peace through deft leadership toward nuclear détente.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our culture, awash in part in hooliganism, will find again the language and the song and the spirit of the better angels of our nature.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our country, fractured by massive inequality between rich children and poor children, will rise up and make education, free education, available to all children, poor and rich.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our nation, fractured by flagrant unjust inequality between rich and poor children, will stand up and make health care, free health care, available to all children, poor and rich.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our schools, colleges and universities, will balance a love of learning with a sense of meaning, a pride in knowledge with a respect for goodness, a drive for discovery with a regard for recovery.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our families, torn apart by abuse and distrust and anger and jealousy and unkindness, show kindness and pity to one another.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our decisions in life about our callings, how we are to use our time and spend our money, how we make a life not just a living, will be illumined by grace and generosity.

We offer a common prayer that, over time, and by hard experience, we may learn that the meaning of a word, a deed, an act is not found in the sentiment or feeling in which it was uttered or offered, but just in what it does for others, not in what we meant by it, but in what it does to others.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our grandfathers and mothers, in their age and infirmity, will receive care and kindness that accords with the warning to honor father and mother that you own days be long upon the earth.

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that women—our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters, granddaughters, all—granted suffrage less than 100 years ago, will be spared any and all forms of harassment and abuse, verbal or physical, on college campuses, in homes and families, in offices and bars, in life and work, and long having suffered and now having suffrage, will in our time rise up to be honored, revered, and compensated, without reserve, but with justice and mercy.

We offer a common prayer, finally a prayer not of this world, but of this world as a field of formation for another, not just creation but new creation, not just life but eternal life, not just health but salvation, not just heart but soul, not just earth, but heaven.

Coda

For the time being…our Holy Scripture, including our beloved Sermon on the Mount, the most cherished of the Lord’s remembered teachings, may guide us but cannot direct us.  

Brueggeman:  not just moving people from outsiders to insiders, but also moving people from forgetters into rememberers and from beloved children to belieful adults (Biblical Perspectives…94).  You need to read.

Hoekendijk:  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. You need to worship.

One specific:  join us tomorrow on Marsh Plaza at 3pm in support of our Boston University Arabic Society, or say a prayer, read a psalm, send a note or check at 3pm

In sum, while our blessed Sermon on the Mount can and does guide us, it does not direct us, in the end.  We are charged, challenged and required to make sense of our own epoch, and by faith to live in faith.  While this is exhilarating in its freeing of the will, it is staggering in its requirement of the man or woman of faith.

You may feel empty.  Note the fullness promised emptiness in the Beatitudes.  ‘The reality of the vessel is the shape of the void within it.’ (Lao Tze)

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

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

In the Moonlight

Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

Click here to hear the full service

John 1:29-42

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Preface

Wise Nicodemus saw such light
As made him know his God by night.

O for that night! Where I in him
Might live invisible and dim.

We are a people who languish in the doldrums of a pervasive, shared disappointment. A cultural disappointment: technological, relational, conversational, rhetorical—spiritual (including donkeys and elephants and others). After a year of disappointment, broadly shared: disappointment of process, outcome, option, influence, rhetoric, values, and virtues. While not universal, and while certainly varied in focus, a common disappointment robes the vast majority across our land. We pause in prayer under a night sky, in the moonlight.

Hear Good News: Faith discovers in disappointment a truth that sets free. A freeing of the will.

Remember that the ancient and holy scriptures afford a space for moonlight, as well as for sunlight.

The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge.

At night, there is moonlight. A song in the night. A weeping that tarries for the night. A reflected light. A pale moonlight.

If I say let only the darkness cover me, and the night about me be as night: even the darkness is not dark to thee; the night is as bright as the day; for darkness is as light with thee.

Out in the wilderness, late on a winter night, say it is a clear night, you see by a different light. A refracted illumination. A reflected brightness. A luminosity of a different measure, kind, sort and type. The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow brings the luster of midnight to objects below. The corn stubble in the field gives its shadow out from the dark brightness of the night.

Look around you here in the dark. Train your eyes to see what only shows up in moonlight.

The heavens are telling the glory of God. That is sunlight. And the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. That is moonlight.

Day to day pours for speech. That is sunlight. And night to night declares knowledge. That is moonlight.

There is a wonder of the heavens. And there is a wonder of the firmament. There is a wonder of the day. And there is a wonder of the night. There is a wonder at life. And there is a wonder at death. There is a wonder at birth, brightness, gaiety, satiety, summer, joy, victory, discovery and all that lives. And there is a wonder at death, darkness, despond, emptiness, acedia, defeat, loss and all that limits life. One wonder is exuberant, and the other is melancholy—one of the day and one of the night. But both are wonder and both are ours and both are witnesses to faith, a faith that uncovers freedom in the heart of disappointment.

The heavens are telling the glory of God. And the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.

Day to day pours for speech. And night to night declares knowledge.
As Nicodemus knew (H Vaughn):

Wise Nicodemus saw such light
As made him know his God by night.

O for that night! Where I in him
Might live invisible and dim.

John Sees

On Christmas Day, we newly remembered, by John, grace in dislocation. Their Johannine Grace in the heart of dislocated darkness: our Epiphany of grace, by Jesus, in our own experience.

In Baptism, that of John today, who comes and sees, we newly remember, by John, freedom in disappointment. Dislocated out of the synagogue, they also had been disappointed, by Jesus. He did not, had not, would not return. Not Parousia, Armageddon, Speculation: but Paraclete, Artistry, Spirit. Not the end is here, but the Lord is near. And in that trauma of abject disappointment, by Jesus, their Epiphany of freedom! The hour is coming? No. The hour NOW IS. Our Epiphany, by Jesus, of freedom, right in the teeth and belly of supreme disappointment.

When you have known disappointment together. When you have endured disappointment together. When you have suffered disappointment—together. When together you have faced disappointment.

Then, in freedom, you see. Then, in the moonlight, you see. Not the freedom of the will (Pelagius), but the freeing of the will (Augustine).

Come and see. See. It is the freeing of the will that allows moonlit sight, that at last allows a night vision, tenebrous vision.

John knows the twilight. His is the twilight Gospel, with which our lectionary, our liturgy, our day light predilections are least at ease. Hence the others, on a three-year cycle, all have their space, their own room: John sleeps in the stairwell, outside, occasionally, as here in January, granted a comfortable night’s rest, an occasional, limited hearing.

John knows night. All the chapters 13-17 are Jesus speaking at night, a twilight farewell discourse. All the chapters 18-20 are burial, visitation, inspiration, at night. Nicodemus appears in Chapter 3, 12, and 19, only at night. The darkest, bitterest words of the New Testament are found in chapters 7-8, a nighttime of rhetoric. And Chapter 1: the light shines—in the darkness; the true light that enlightens everyone—was coming into the world. John knows night.

John knows the night of disappointment, shrouded by these rhetorical forms. John faces what others avoided: disappointment. The greatest early hope of the primitive Christian church—its rejoinder to doubting contestants, its encouragement in the face of suffering, its expectation of scores settled, its very marrow and meaning and mane, its name—was the expected, imminent, soon and very soon return, Parousia, coming of Christ in power on the clouds of heaven. Read again the Revelation. All for nought. Into the third generation, it became clear, all arithmetical recalculations aside thank you 2 Peter, that Jesus was not coming again, at least not any time soon. John looked dismay in the eye, admitted disappointment, and then—SURSUM CORDA—saw by moonlight the freedom of the gospel. Spirit, not Jesus. Presence, not absence. Artistry, not apocalypse. Soul, not speculation. Here and now, not there and then. Real freedom.

It is the shunted aside lectionary avoided Fourth Gospel, John, you need when the chips are down. We saw this on Christmas Day—dislocation illumined grace. We see it today—disappointment illumines freedom. When it gets dark enough, you can see the stars. But you have to wait and watch as the sun goes down, down, down below the horizon to your left, and then wait and watch as the moon comes up, up, up, over the horizon to your right. And it is harder to see, at night. But, mirable dictu, you see some things better. In the moonlight.

The Gospel is not a prophecy fulfilled, but a mystery revealed. John is very different. Be careful! *Step lightly: this (1:29) is John—the Baptist—yet not named so. *Jesus is not baptized by John in John. *Behold: the Lamb of God who takes away sin: this is the only use of this line in the Bible, yet we use it monthly for eucharist, so think it is common. *In thy light we see light. *He ranks before me because he was before me. *The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world. *For this (John the Baptist) came that He might be revealed.

So: Come…and…see. Over a long time, the community of John—say in Ephesus, say in the years following 90ad, gradually and painfully came to see. They came to see…Him. They came to see that He, and those in Him, through Him, were bathed in glory. Bathed not only in beauty, but bathed in glory. His glory. Glory as of the Father’s only Son. Glory. Come…and…see.

Imagine their antiphonal music in worship: “I am the vine”. “I am the door.” “I am the door”. “I am the vine”. (Insight received from John Ashton).

In a small upper room. In the evening. In candle light. In seclusion. Away from their formerly beloved, now feared, perhaps familial, opponents, whom they now held in odium theologicum. In reading. In communion. In silence. In utterance. Knees on hard, cold floors. Hands outstretched. Eyes closed. In a small upper room.

We See

In the moonlight, in the freedom that a twilight disappointment alone can give, we see things we otherwise would miss.

We have a shared national disappointment. To repeat: let it be firmly asserted that this lacrimose loss is not limited to donkeys or elephants, left or right, loser or winner. The disappointment, though not universal, by large measure, is broadly shared, if variously construed, and variously defined. Look around, in the moonlight. Let your eyes adjust over the next many months and years. We will come around again in four years to such a period as we had last year. But now: be ready to receive what the moonlight shows. The greater light to rule the day; the lesser light to rule the night. What do you see, now, at midnight? What did you learn during the day, that now you can see, during the night? In the moonlight.

In the moon light we see…

We see that we see what we want to see, or what we expect to see, both pollsters and others.

We see that we have penchant for entertainment, sometimes to the detriment of information.

We see that big, unexpected, bad things can and do befall people, both individuals and countries (as if any of us in Boston following April 2013 needed a reminder).

We see that social location, your choices in standing and sitting, prayer and worship, volunteering and voting, come Sunday and come weekday, do matter. Particularly in voting.

We see the ongoing corrosive effects of race and sex, still with us long after emancipation and suffrage. The exuberant gathering on the Boston Common yesterday, wherein we greeted so many of you, nourished us and others.

We see that we tend, tragically, to underestimate the power of hatred and evil, having neglected too long our careful reading of Niebuhr.

We see that we learn humility from humiliation, and discipline from pain. ‘Advice we humor. Pain we obey’ (Proust).

We see that our view of history is dim, our grasp of history is weak, our knowledge of history is partial, our respect for history is far too limited. Give us today, in 140 letters. So, the marvelous Monday BU MLK observance nourished us—in song, chorus, instrument, band, dance, speech, reflection, and remembrance

We see that we neglect gathering, including ordered worship, to our peril.

Now we see, in the freedom following through disappointment. Now we see. Come and see. In your own experience. To live it down we will have to live it through.

You See

I am told that a recent film titled ‘Moonlight’ carries the story of a young man’s acquisition of freedom through and throughout the harrowing experiences of disappointment. What about you?

Once you have sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept, you may just find a wise freedom. That job you knew was meant for you—gone to another. That degree you most wanted to pursue—not going to happen. That labor, unfulfilled, to make a marriage go that would not go. That dream deferred, making the heart sick. Once the disappointment is faced, squarely, admitted, honestly, endured, faithfully, then a freedom of another dimension may enter.

You may have offered yourself, say, as a candidate for a high office. How much we owe, and how little we honor, those who are willing to run and not win. By the way, winning is not always success, and losing is not always failure. They are not the same, losing and failing. They are not the same, winning and succeeding. So Unamuno: we truly do not know when we have succeeded. You lost the race, which is not always to the swift, by the way. So. Now what? You may seize, or, better, be seized by, a full freedom. Now you are free! Go and make climate change, said Al Gore. Go and bring world peace, said Jimmy Carter. You may just find, as a friend said to another, following a bitter defeat: You have not so much been denied, as spared. Not denied, but spared. You did what you could. People know who you are. They had their chance. They had their chance. Now you have yours, another, perhaps richer, maybe truer, possibly freer. Let faith hold you, and mold you, and enfold you in a greater freedom, that of God’s cruciform love. One high proud moment here at Boston University came three years ago when we had dinner around a small table with John Lewis, whose suffering on the Edmund Pettis bridge in 1965, a profound, gruesome disappointment, opened over time into a great life of faith, a faith that found freedom right in disappointment.

Coda

We are a people who languish in the doldrums of a pervasive, shared disappointment.

The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge.

At twilight there is moonlight.

If I say let only the darkness cover me, and the night about me be as night: even the darkness is not dark to thee; the night is as bright as the day; for darkness is as light with thee.

Out in the wilderness, late on a winter night, say it is a clear night, you see by a different light. A refracted illumination. A reflected brightness. A luminosity of a different measure, kind, sort and type. The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow brings the luster of midnight to objects below. The corn stubble in the field gives its shadow out from the dark brightness of the night.

Or with Howard Thurman, out on the beach. The sun has set, the moon has risen, the stars are out, the wind is light: the ocean and the night surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by any human behavior. The ocean at night gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the ebb and flow of circumstance. Death would be a small thing I felt in the sweep of that natural embrace.

Look around you here in the dark. Train your eyes to see what only shows up in moonlight. Disappointment is the seedbed of freedom. In disappointment there is a discovery, a truth that sets free.

Wise Nicodemus saw such light
As made him know his God by night.

O for that night! Where I in him
Might live invisible and dim.

Your Name Matters, or Wisdom and Theological Imagination

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

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Romans 16:1-7

Proverbs 8:22-36

Luke 7:24-35

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I’d like to thank Dean Hill for inviting me to preach this sermon on this Sunday. It is genuinely humbling and more than a bit intimidating to stand in this pulpit on Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, but I am grateful for the opportunity to bring a word to you this morning. Would you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

During my senior year of college I landed a pretty great job. It paid well, it was hands on, and I learned something new every day I worked. The Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center, BU’s archives, holds a large portion of materials from Martin Luther King, Jr., an alumnus of the school, and HGARC had received a grant to reorganize the materials and create a searchable database with better metadata with more information about the contents of the collection to make it better accessible and searchable for researchers. I somehow got to be an assistant with the project, which meant that for several years I spent ten to fifteen hours a week with boxes of materials shared by King with the university. I had worked a summer for the archives already as a general archival assistant, helping unpack and sort materials arriving from incoming collections. It was an exciting and very messy summer of opening boxes, not knowing whether you’d find old shoes or a collection of handwritten original scores. Working with King’s materials, I thought, would be even better. These materials were already archived; so I thought that all the boring stuff would be gone already. As I walked into the small room with neat blue boxes, I thought they must be full to the brim of speech drafts, sermon notes, handwritten correspondence, all coming from the pen of King himself. And, yes, these materials were there, (I did spend a few months with another staff person alphabetizing several thousand letters, mostly sent to King), but they do not comprise the majority of the collection.

No, most of the materials in the archive are mundane, day-to-day materials. I mostly worked on the materials from the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), but I also did some small work on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The Montgomery Improvement Association, which was formed to oversee the Montgomery Alabama bus boycott in 1955, was formed not by MLK having a revelation sitting in his office at Dexter Avenue one day, but by a group of people, especially Jo-Ann Robinson, president of the Women’s Political Council, and E.D. Nixon, head of the local NAACP. Robinson and Nixon organized the one-day boycott that ended with a meeting, at Holt Street Baptist Church, at which preachers, teachers, and the community decided to transform the one-day protest into an ongoing one. The decision made, they organized, formed the MIA, and set up committees. So many committees. There were carpools to be organized, flyers to be leafletted, funds to be raised and distributed, walkers to escort, lawsuits to be filed, there was a lot of work to do, and a lot of organizing that work required. King was speaking from collective experience when he said in 1968’s “The Other America”: “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability, it comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so we must always help time and realize that the time is always right to do right.”[1]

So these blue-grey archival boxes mostly held not speeches and sermon notes from King, but the minutiae of progress and the detritus of change. Meeting minutes, programs for Monday night church meetings, newsletters, financial documents, typewritten lists of names and phone numbers of persons who had cars and were willing to drive, committee membership rolls.  Pamphlets, flyers, yellowed newsclippings, more meeting minutes. In these scraps of paper, I learned how change happens, I learned how movements are made, and I learned that it is the people, and not a personality, who make change. For good and for evil, for good and for evil, it is the people, and not a personality, who make change.

Many of these people were women, women whose names I didn’t know: Jo-Ann Robinson, who led the Women’s Political Council, Johnnie Carr, the youth director and secretary of the Montgomery NAACP and the future president of the MIA, Aurelia Browder, whose protest, arrest, and subsequent lawsuit over Montgomery bus segregation ultimately led to the successful end of the boycott, Irene West, arrested during the boycott, Georgia Gilmore, founder of the Club from Nowhere who fundraised for the boycott, Hazel Gregory, secretary and board member of the MIA, Maude Ballou, King’s secretary, Erna Dungee executive board member of the MIA.[2] Women were members of the MIA executive board, kept its books, got arrested, fundraised, and organized both out front and behind the scenes of the movement. Their names matter, and I wanted to pause to raise their names before us today. Jo-Ann Robinson, Johnnie Carr, Aurelia Browder, Irene West, Georgia Gilmore, Hazel Gregory, Maude Ballou, Erna Dungee.

We’ve also heard some unfamiliar names today in our first reading from Romans 16. Unless you keep up with the daily lectionary, where you will come across it on September 25 and 26th this year, you likely won’t have heard this text from Romans 16:1-7 before. It’s not a part of the Sunday Revised Common Lectionary, because, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, it’s largely a list of names. The prescripts, postscripts, the long lists of names and the greetings which accompany them are often excised from our liturgy, partially out of mercy to the lectors, but really out of a desire to communicate theology in the liturgy. This liturgical bias even led some biblical scholars to excise Romans 16 from the rest of the letter. How could Romans, the height of Pauline theology, especially for Protestants, have such a mundane, overlong list of names? This chapter must be a fragment of some other, more ordinary missive. Thankfully, that argument has largely been overturned. I would argue, though, that these prescripts and postcripts, these names matter to more than just biblical scholars interested in onomastics, text criticism, or the social status of the earliest followers of Christ. These names matter for us as the church. They matter for our theology, they matter for our ecclesiology, they matter for the work they did, the change they brought, and they matter because they are our foremothers and fathers in faith. Their names matter. Phoebe the deacon; Prisca and Aquilla, coworkers with Paul in Christ, the assemblies that meet in their house, Epaenetus, first fruit of Asia in Christ, Mary, the hard-worker, and Andronicus and Junia, kinfolk, fellow-prisoners who are noteworthy among the apostles and who were in Christ before Paul was.[3]

I’d like to focus on Junia for a moment, Junia, that woman who is so prominent among the apostles. Thanks to the work of Bernadette Brooten and then Eldon Epp, we learn that Junia for much of the last century or so of biblical scholarship and translation has been misgendered over disagreements about a Greek accent. Junia, a common name for Roman women, was understood as a woman by all early Christian writers of late antiquity, by scholarly Greek New Testaments from Erasmus in 1516 to Nestle’s edition of 1927, by “all extant early translations of Romans 16:7 (from Greek into Old Latin, Vulgate, Sahidic and Bohairic Coptic, and Syriac versions),”[4] and by almost all English translations from Tyndale in 1526 up until the late 19th century, including the beloved and (for some Christians) inerrant King James Version. In the late 1800’s, though, some biblical scholars decided that these sources were wrong, and that translators and editors from Jerome to Erasmus to Tyndale were mistaken. According to these scholars, Junia wasn’t Junia, she was actually Junias. Which is actually pretty funny, because there are no attestations of the male name Junias anywhere in antiquity. No matter, scholars suggested that perhaps Junias (although unattested) is a shortened form of another name, Junianus, a hypothesis that does not stand up well under scrutiny, and which requires a more complicated reading strategy than just taking the name as a commonly attested feminine accusative form. Some scholars also read certain early manuscripts as supporting a different Greek accent to argue that other early Christians read Junia as Junias,[5] which is again pretty funny, because early manuscripts aren’t accented. Why did these scholars literally make up a man’s name to create a textual critical controversy where one had not been before? The answer becomes clear when you look at the praise for Junia and Andronicus; they followed Christ before Paul did, and they are people worth noting among the apostles, among those sent out to share the gospel. Ah, there’s the rub. The issue, it seems, is that there is a woman named in the canonical New Testament as an apostle.

What leads scholars to overlook their evidence, to see things that aren’t there, and to unsee what is right before them? I don’t think it’s malice or ill-will, but I would argue that it is a lack of theological imagination. It is a lack of imagination to see a name before you and think, this apostle, this fellow-prisoner and kinsperson, must have been a man. It couldn’t have been otherwise, because I know there weren’t any women who were apostles. James Dunn says of this kind of thinking, “The assumption that it must be male is a striking indictment of male presumption regarding the character and structure of earliest Christianity.”[6] But, today, if you read an NIV, or pick up some other translations or Greek text-critical editions, you will still find Junias or an acknowledgment of “controversy” surrounding the translation. A lack of imagination leads not only to poor scholarship but it is poor theology, because it restricts our ability to envision a church different than the one we expect, and it restricts our ability to envision a God who has the breadth and capacity to call and send all persons: men, women, gender non-conforming folk, gay, straight, trans people, black, brown, white people, abled, and disabled people. When we fit God into our brain-sized boxes, visually, intellectually, and theologically, we close off the possibility to be changed by what we discover in scripture, by reason, from tradition, and through experience. But when our theological imagination is open to a bit of surprise, it is also open to grace, because grace is nothing if not surprising. There is the surprise that awaits even before we think to look: prevenient grace. The surprise that changes everything: justifying grace. The surprise that makes us get up and act: sanctifying grace.

So Junia’s name matters. Her work matters. Her status as someone called and sent by God matters. Her name, along with the more than two dozen people greeted in Romans 16, matter. And it is only a lack of theological imagination that thinks that they don’t, that it is only through the genius of a personality like Paul’s that the gospel bears fruit.

The people, not a personality, make change. There is a reason that the earliest Christ followers called themselves ekklēsiae, assemblies, what we translate as churches. They and Paul use the term for the assembly in ancient Athenian democracy, a political system in which free male citizens could vote, choose their leaders, deliberate, and determine their future as a city. So, too, these Christ-following assemblies deliberated about their identity and their future, chose their leaders, and pooled their resources. But citizenship in the Christ assembly was open to all, Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female, and its decisions did not always follow the epistolary demands of a singular, male leader (i.e. Paul).

Theological imagination requires a reorientation away from the heroization of Paul,[7] towards an interest in the people with and beside Paul, who write with him, carry his letters, who bring his voice to these communities, and who receive his letters and respond to him. This reorientation of course, is something feminist biblical scholars such as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Elizabeth Clark, Elizabeth Castelli (there are a lot of great Elizabeths!), and many, many others, have been calling attention to for decades. These women asking for a bit more wisdom in the way we read scripture, and asking for a bit more wisdom in our theological imagination.

Feminist and womanist biblical interpreters often find inspiration in the personification of wisdom we find in Proverbs 8, read responsively today. Wisdom, personified as a woman, speaks, in the passage immediately preceding what we read today:

“To you, O people, I call out;
    I raise my voice to all humankind..
Listen, for I have trustworthy things to say;
    I open my lips to speak what is right.
My mouth speaks what is true,
    for my lips detest wickedness.
All the words of my mouth are just;
    none of them is crooked or perverse.
To the discerning all of them are right;
    they are upright to those who have found knowledge.
10 Choose my instruction instead of silver,
    knowledge rather than choice gold,
11 for wisdom is more precious than rubies,
    and nothing you desire can compare with her.

In Proverbs 8, we also see wisdom present at the beginning, co-creating with God, in an exegesis of Genesis 1. Early Christians, especially the gospel writers, read Proverbs 8 and its account of divine wisdom, present at the beginning and co-creating with God, an exegesis of the creation account in Genesis, with theological imagination. They imagined and wrote about Jesus that way, whether at the beginning of John’s gospel, a midrash on Proverbs 8/Genesis 1, read a few weeks ago, or in the passage we read today from Luke 7. John the Baptist is a prophet and Jesus, well, Luke seems to play with the idea that Jesus is Wisdom herself in the flesh.

“Wisdom is vindicated by her children.” We are all wisdom’s children, and we do not and we cannot rely upon a single, heroic figure to guide or a demonic figure to blame for our speech or actions, or our silence and inaction. Our words and our actions reflect our wisdom or our folly, and we cannot escape the weighty mantle of responsibility that fact entails and the humility that fact requires. Jesus rebukes those who went to the Jordan looking for a personality in John—whether a frail reed or luxury clothes. Instead, Jesus, reorients us away from personality towards wisdom, towards the people. “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

I’d like to end with a brief quote and then a charge for you today. First the quote; which comes from another letter, written by Martin Luther King, Jr. I quote the Letter from a Birmingham Jail not as a heroization of King’s personality or unique genius, but because this letter, like Romans, is a letter written in community to community. Its wisdom is not in the personality of King, but in its rootedness in the importance of people beside King, of their action and inaction. I quote from this letter’s prescript to let King to situate himself as a saint in the much greater assembly of saints. I read from the letter’s opening, the height of rhetoric only happens after King situates himself within the community[8]

MY DEAR FELLOW CLERGYMEN:

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every Southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.

…We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

Remember, even at the heights of human rhetoric, we organize change not as a single personality, but as people.

And now, a charge: find some people. Do something. Go to a march, make a podcast, join a committee, please join a committee, volunteer for something, start something. Or, try writinga letter. When was the last time you wrote a physical letter to somebody? Not a tweet, facebook comment, or even an email, but a physical letter. Write a letter this week: A letter to a family member or friend you haven’t been able to find the right words for, a letter to that person you had to unfollow on Facebook because of all their political posts, a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, a letter to your elected official. It can be important, it can be mundane, it can be simple greetings or soaring rhetoric. You can be grumpy as Galatians, as pushy as Philemon, as poetic as Philippians, as tender as 1 Thessalonians, as caring and concerned as 1 &2 Corinthians, or as rambling as Romans, but write. Your choice, but if you choose to write, two requirements. 1. Value people over personality in the letter. Send greetings to people. Don’t expect the recipient to be able to solve everything or carry all the blame. Share why you care about what you care about. Acknowledge someone other than yourself. And 2. Sign your name to the letter. No anonymous comments on a news article or blog, no hiding behind a twitter handle. In a world with too much commenting and too much commentary, offer your real name. Because your name matters. The people to whom you write, the people with whom you correspond, matter. You matter. Your name matters.

Amen.

–The Rev. Jen Quigley, Chapel Associate for Vocational Discernment

[1] http://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/

[2] See Jo-Ann Gibson Robinson, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: the Memoir of Jo-Ann Gibson Robinson (Knoxville: The University of Tenessee Press, 1987).

[3] See Bernadette Brooten, “Junia…Outstanding among the Apostles (Rom 16:7)” in Women Priests: A Catholic Commentary on the Vatican Declaration, ed. L. and A. Swidler, (New York: Paulist Press, 1977).

[4] Eldon J. Epp, Junia: The First Woman Apostle. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2005) 23-24.

[5] See Epp on UBS 4 (1993), 45-46.

[6] Romans 9-16, WBC 38 (Dallas: Word, 1988), 894.

[7] See Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre and Laura S. Nasrallah, “Beyond the Heroic Paul: Toward a Feminist and Decolonizing Approach to the Letters of Paul.” In The Colonized Apostle: Paul through Postcolonial Eyes. Edited by Christopher Stanley. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 161-174.

[8] An annotated version can be found here: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/annotated-letter-birmingham-jail#fn1.

 

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Baptism: Political Theology

Sunday, January 8th, 2017

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Isaiah 42: 1-9

Psalm 29

Acts 10: 34-43

Matthew 3: 13-17

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Judgment:

Left. Right.

Up. Down.

Rise. Fall.

Scales of justice tip and tilt.

Judgment:

Righteousness. Sin.

Life. Punishment.

Kingdom. Fire.

Jesus judges sheep from goats.

Judgment:

Righteous. Unjust.

Merciful. Cruel.

Humble. Proud.

Jesus stores the wheat and burns the chaff.

Judgment:

Poor. Rich.

Faithful. Disobedient.

Honest. Hypocrite.

Jesus teaches the way through the narrow gate.

Baptism:

John. Jesus.

Water. Spirit.

Repentance. Forgiveness.

Jesus, with John, fills up all righteousness.

How shall power be distributed? How shall resources be allocated? These are the fundamental questions of politics. Today, having hoped for deliverance during Advent, having rejoiced at the incarnation on Christmas, and having marveled at the revelation on Epiphany, we now come face to face with the one we hoped for, the one we celebrated, the one at whom we marveled: Jesus, who has come to be our judge, and whose baptism by John fills up all righteousness. Like with so many gifts, we may find that Jesus is not quite what we were hoping for. Having unwrapped the package, our joy may not quite be complete. The curtain having been pulled back, our wonderment may be tinged with a bit of perplexity. You see, today, as Jesus descends into the Jordan and is baptized by John, the promise of the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus is not in some far off heavenly realm, but rather is immersed in the ebb and flow of the mundane. Jesus, it turns out, is deeply concerned with how power is distributed and with how resources are allocated. And moreover, Jesus is deeply concerned with how we, you and I, wield power, interact with power, respond to power; with how we, you and I, obtain wealth, spend wealth, share wealth. Jesus’ baptism is political theology.

Where is your treasure? You may want to ponder this question between now and Ash Wednesday, when Jesus will address the question directly: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Where is your treasure? Is it on earth, or is it in heaven? And how, pray tell, should you know?

For Matthew, the scales of divine justice, the scales upon which righteousness is measured and judgment meted out, are quite similar to the banker’s scales upon which your payment is determined sufficient to cancel your debt or you are bankrupt. In Matthew’s construal, we each have two bank accounts, one in heaven, and one on earth; one spiritual, and one material; and wealth is interchangeable between the two. In fact, there is an inverse correlation between the amount of treasure in one and the amount of treasure in the other: our treasure in the heavenly account increases as we give our material wealth to the poor; our treasure in the earthly account increases by greed, injustice, and hypocrisy, which put our spiritual balance in the red. What is our spiritual treasure? What is spiritual wealth? Righteousness. Righteousness. Righteousness. And so, we are back in the Jordan with John who baptizes Jesus to fulfill all righteousness.

It is easy to overlook the importance of Jesus’ baptism by John fulfilling all righteousness given the extraordinary way the scene ends: “suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Who cares about the fulfillment of all righteousness when the heavens are rent, the Spirit of God descends, and God speaks in the words of the prophet Isaiah? Surely it is this revelation of Jesus’ divinity and of the trinity that is the point of Jesus’ baptism? No! The opening of the heavens, the descent of the Spirit, and the voice of God are not the point but rather the divine response to the fulfillment of all righteousness, or better, the filling up of all righteousness. After all, the whole point of the incarnation, life, ministry, teaching, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus is salvation, and salvation is accomplished by filling spiritual bank accounts with righteousness. In Jesus, the infinite righteousness of God flows into the world to fill up the spiritual bank accounts of those who take up their crosses and follow Jesus, that is, of those who are righteous. Jesus pays off the spiritual debts, that is, gives himself as a ransom, for his righteous disciples. And so:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Here, then, is the economy of salvation: take up your cross, follow Jesus, and store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. Note: there is no room here for empty words: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Note: salvation is not about belief: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” The economy of salvation is to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. Righteousness is done, not thought, not said, not believed. Justice is done, not thought, not said, not believed. Mercy is done, not thought, not said, not believed. Humility is done, not thought, not said, not believed. Belief is worthless. Speech is worthless. Righteousness alone is heavenly treasure, and righteousness requires you to act.

There is an inverse relationship between the amount of treasure in the spiritual bank account and the amount of treasure in the material bank account. Righteous action is costly. The grace of Jesus filling the spiritual accounts of the righteous is costly, for Jesus and for us. Teaching righteousness, preaching righteousness, doing righteousness, filling all righteousness got Jesus killed, and many of his followers down through the ages as well. Doing righteousness, doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God, are costly to us as well. After all, the correlate of taking up your cross is laying down your life.

No one knows more about costly grace, the cost of righteousness, the cost of justice, than Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose hymn, “By Gracious Powers,” we will sing following the sermon. An outspoken critic and opponent of Hitler and the Nazi regime from the very beginning of its rise to power, Bonhoeffer left Germany for the United States and Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1939 rather than face the prospect of being conscripted into Hitler’s army and refusing to serve, a capital offense. Regret at the decision to leave Germany nagging at him, he returned to suffer through the dark days of the Nazi regime with his fellow Germans and the Confessing Church, which he had helped found. A lifelong pacifist, as a participant in the German resistance Bonhoeffer nevertheless contributed to a plot to kill Hitler, having concluded that “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” As he said in what was to have been his magnum opus, his Ethics, “when a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it… Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.” Having been arrested on April 5, 1943, his connection to the conspiracy to kill Hitler was not discovered until a year and half later when the plot had already failed, and he was executed by hanging at dawn with several co-conspirators on April 9, 1945, only two weeks before U.S. soldiers would liberate the camp.

Grace is indeed costly. Righteousness is indeed costly. For God, and for us. Jesus filling up all righteousness is the very meaning of grace, and that grace is both a precious resource and a great power. Grace is not a divine exception from the unjust use of earthly power and the unequal distribution of earthly resources. Grace is the call to use earthly power justly and to distribute earthly resources fairly.

The cost of grace, the cost of righteousness, the cost of justice, the cost of mercy, the cost of humility is steep, and so it should be little surprise that there is a plethora of cheap grace flooding the salvation market. This knockoff grace, peddled in various formulations throughout history, arises in its most visible, pervasive, and pernicious form today as so-called “Prosperity Gospel.” Its roots to be found in the New Thought movement of the late 19th century, prosperity teachings reached prominence in the healing revivals of the mid-20th century and then in the later 20th century in the Word of Faith movement and televangelism. The central teachings of the prosperity gospel are that it is God’s will that we be healthy and wealthy, that if we are not it is because we lack faith, we lack positive thought processes, and we need to contribute financially to the appropriate religious institutions. Salvation, in this view, is not righteousness but the breaking of the bonds of sickness and poverty. You too may achieve prosperity in abundance, if you believe hard enough, think yourself strong enough, and give the preacher enough money.

This is the cheapest of grace, or as Bonhoeffer described it, “grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; grace as the church’s inexhaustible pantry, from which it is doled out by careless hands without hesitation or limit.” Note that in the gospel of prosperity the relationship between the heavenly bank account and the material bank account is not inversely proportional but directly proportional; that is, increasing the amount in your heavenly account also increases the amount in your material account and vice versa. The road to salvation requires not that you take up your cross but that you take up your money, and if you do not have any money, just believe hard enough and you will. Reinhold Niebuhr rightly called out an early version of prosperity gospel, preached by Norman Vincent Peale, as false gospel: “The basic sin of this cult is its egocentricity; it puts ‘self’ instead of the cross at the center of the picture.” Or, as Bonhoeffer rightly summed up, “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.” Prosperity gospel is heresy, it is blasphemy, it is treason in the kingdom of God, and worst of all, it is wrong.

Of course, heresy, blasphemy, treason in the kingdom, and flat out being wrong are hardly barriers to political success, to attaining earthly wealth and power. In our own day, the gospel of prosperity has amassed vast wealth by preying on those in financial and personal distress with promises of health and wealth to those who give their last penny. In our own day, the gospel of prosperity has attained a level of power and influence such that it will be front and center, leading us in prayer, in the presidential inauguration in a couple of weeks.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was called to stand with Jesus in the Jordan in the dark days of Nazi Germany, to commit himself once again to righteousness by being baptized by John for repentance, to pay the earthly cost of grace in order to store up righteous treasure in heaven. Jesus’ baptism is political theology. Bonhoeffer’s baptism is a living out, a doing, of the political theology of Jesus’ baptism by John, of righteousness, of justice, of mercy, of humility. In the days to come, will you stand with Jesus in the Jordan? Will you pay the cost of discipleship? Will you receive the filling up of all righteousness Jesus offers by doing righteousness? Will you cash out your material bank account in order to store your treasure in heaven?

Thus says John the baptizer: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John’s baptism with water for repentance is cheap compared to the cost to be paid for Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire is what we face at the seat of judgment, and Jesus is the judge. Judgment is a determination of justice. Jesus will determine our justice, our righteousness.

Judgment:

Left. Right.

Up. Down.

Rise. Fall.

Scales of justice tip and tilt.

Judgment:

Righteousness. Sin.

Life. Punishment.

Kingdom. Fire.

Jesus judges sheep from goats.

Judgment:

Righteous. Unjust.

Merciful. Cruel.

Humble. Proud.

Jesus stores the wheat and burns the chaff.

Judgment:

Poor. Rich.

Faithful. Disobedient.

Honest. Hypocrite.

Jesus teaches the way through the narrow gate.

Baptism:

John. Jesus.

Water. Spirit.

Repentance. Forgiveness.

Jesus, with John, fills up all righteousness.

Do justice; love mercy; walk humbly with your God.

Amen.

-Brother Lawrence A. Whitney, LC†

Resolution

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

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Matthew 2: 1-12

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Thirty years ago, I was given a precious gift.  The gift was given following a pastoral visit, in which a woman mentioned that she had written a journal entry about her first time in worship, in our church.  With some trepidation, not knowing what it might hold, I tentatively asked if she would sometime give me a copy, which sometime later she did.  She gave me the copy about nine months later, on the day she joined the church.  In a moment, I am going to read you the journal entry.  I have permission to do so, and have done so in other (mostly teaching) settings.  The author died two years ago, after many years of faithful service and membership in that church.  She was an individual, a real person, very different, somewhat zany, a hoot.  She led for decades the church’s bell choir, named ‘Hell’s Bells’.  I bring her journal entry because, for her, finding a place and way to worship, a church family to love, and church home to enjoy, was simple salvation, connection, empowerment, meaning, belonging, the alphabet of grace and the winning experience of love.  Have you found a church family to love and church home to enjoy?  Have you found a burning fire, a hearth before which to warm, to wonder, to pray, to pause, to listen, to learn?

This week with one son and one son-in-law, I sat before a beautiful hearth, and a roaring fire.  Let me add that both son and son-in-law are solid citizens, if I may, the former, a hiker and camper, an attorney and church lay leader, the latter a PhD from Princeton, a senior minister and an Eagle Scout.  They know about fires, starting and feeding and tending them, is what I mean.  Yet, in that evening, one asked, ‘Is this fire real, or is it gas fed?’  Because the fire was so well built, 2 logs by 2 logs by 2, and because it burned so cleanly in the venerable, hearth—a kind of perfected beauty—it did resemble what has become, sadly, the norm in public hearths, gas not wood.  So, the question, I am emphasizing, was not out of place.  But the fire was real.  I had been there earlier to see it built and lit and fed.  I have age, more winters on the back, more time around fires.  And, I love a beautiful hearth and roaring flame in it.  The fire was for real.  Yet, the next morning, the other asked, ‘is it really for real?’  Come and see, was all I could say.

Come and see is all I say today, for this New Year’s sermon.  That fire you admire, that worship service burning and blazing, which you hear over the radio, or on the internet, or which you admire from afar, or of which someone has told you—it is for real.  It is.  Come and stand closer.  You will feel it.  Your life needs, demands, requires, and will open up in warmth before such a sturdy fireplace.  Come and see.  Kings to the brightness of his rising did come, long ago.  To worship.  Worship.  Somewhere.  It need not be here.  But somewhere.

Have you no 2017 resolution?  Here is one:  go to church.  Why?  For the mystery of the burning fire.  For its beauty and warmth.  For its darkness lit by the licking flames.  For its allure, its millennia old draw, its gathered people.  For the different women and men whom you will find—a group not a part of your extended family, not a part of your familiar neighborhood, not a part of your workplace, not a part of your cyber network.  A woman, hymnal in one hand and baby in the other, rocking in the fourth pew, here, on Christmas Eve, singing the Carols.  A man, alone in the balcony, wrestling off the dark difficulties of life.  A colorful family with squirming children.  A widow, grieving, whose grief is unlike any other, as every grief is unlike any other.  A preacher trying for both honesty and kindness, both truth and love.  A choir giving it their all, all the time.  A table set, as today, with remembrance, thanksgiving, and presence; with faith and hope and love.  You don’t believe?  Worship until you believe it, then worship because you believe it. (John Wesley’s admonishment to preachers). It will come, over time, believe me.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.  And guess what?  If this is your resolution, you have already started to live it!  Here you are, today, listening by the internet or radio, or seated in the pew, or wandering the back rooms, narthex, hallways and byways of the chapel.  Have you no 2017 resolution?  Here is one:  go to church.   Thirty years ago, one did so…

(The preached sermon at this point concluded with the journal recollection of a first time visit to a church, by a woman who later joined that church:  the detailed journal piece remembered what it feels like to be new, in a new place, unknown to others (regulars in any church need steady reminder of this) and remembered the sheer joy one finds when finally, in person, one discovers a church family to love and church home to enjoy (those listening and participating only by radio\internet need steady invitation to this)).

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