Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Christmas and Easter in July

Sunday, July 17th, 2016

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Luke 10:38-42

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The text is not available for this sermon.

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Revealing Compassion

Sunday, July 10th, 2016

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Luke 10:25-37

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Good morning. I’m thankful for the opportunity to speak to you as a part of the Marsh Chapel Summer Preaching Series focused on a Lukan Horizon, drawing out the themes of compassion and justice within the Gospel of Luke. These messages are always relevant, but seem even more pertinent in our current situation.

Who would have thought that at the beginning of this week, amidst the fireworks and barbecues and time spent with family and friends celebrating ideals like freedom, democracy, and independence, we would end the week with these great tragedies? Here we are again. Mourning loss of life again. Feeling overwhelmed and frustrated by the violence in our world again. Again. Again. Again. I don’t have words to express my outrage and brokenness in light of recent events. In the words of the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth Eaton, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this before.”   

It took me a long time to prepare for this week’s sermon. And by a long time, I mean it took me a long time to actually sit down and write. Repeatedly this week we, as a nation and members of a global society, woke up to news of violence and death from the night before in our own country. By Friday, I became afraid to check social media. The previous two days my news feed was filled with videos of the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and accompanying lament, anger, and sorrow from my friends. It was devastating to realize that this is happening, again. Not that it has every really stopped happening. We’re just highly aware of it now because of our access to social media, phones with cameras, and live streaming. Our nation is steeped in a history of racism which perpetuates the same systemic injustice and hate toward people of color generation after generation. Friday was no different from the previous two days – I woke up to the news of 11 police officers shot, 5 of which were killed, while on patrol at a rally protesting the police shootings taking place in Baton Rouge and St. Paul. Photos from earlier that evening showed police officers and protesters taking photos together – a peaceful gathering that was shattered by gunshots aimed at police officers. After weeks and weeks of horrific news and terror in our own country (Orlando, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas) and around the world (Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, and yesterday in Balad), we are in crisis.

In all my grappling with the news this week, I turned to our gospel reading. I wanted a word of hope in this seemingly relentless barrage of death and destruction. What does the gospel have to offer us in this time of need? What is the good news of God given by Jesus that can help us in our lament?

Today’s gospel invites us to see and do.  We love the parable of the Good Samaritan. It exemplifies the message of Christ to us – to love God and in so doing, love our neighbors as ourselves.  It has permeated our culture so much that the term “Good Samaritan” is something that we find in news stories and even in our laws. In those contexts it means someone who helps someone else who is in a dangerous or life-threatening situation without expectation of recognition or acknowledgement. But that doesn’t really get to the heart of what is happening in this passage from Luke.

To understand the meaning of the parable, we must first truly understand the Lawyer and his position within his context. A lawyer in Jesus’ time was a religious official – the law was religious Law, the laws of the Hebrew Bible. In asking Jesus his initial question – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the Lawyer already knew the answer…and Jesus knows that, turning the question back on him: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 to him “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says he is correct in his reading and understanding of the law. But the Lawyer is not satisfied with Jesus’ answer. Perhaps in an attempt to trap Jesus into making a mistake, sensing that Jesus’ answer will go against Jewish teaching, the lawyer continues his questioning…”And who is my neighbor?”

The Lawyer’s concept of neighbor is limiting. In Jewish society at this time, there were boundaries constructed by rules about how one was to interact with others depending on one’s place within society. How Jewish people should interact with Gentiles and Samaritans; how women should interact with men; how priests should interact with Israelites. There were clear lines as to who you had to consider as your neighbor, and who you did not. And to act in love to someone who was on the other side of those boundaries was completely out of the question.

In Luke’s writing, Jesus often answers questions like the one posed by the Lawyer with a parable. A parable is a wonderful narrative tool because it requires the listener to actively engage in the story. It begs the question of who you identify with and why. It requires the listener to determine the moral of the story. It answers a question or resolves a situation in indirect ways, putting the onus on the listener to determine what is right and wrong. Utilizing a narrative device like this puts a “face” on the response that isn’t an abstract concept – it’s people in conceivably real life situations. An ethical dilemma.

What we often misunderstand in this story is the Lawyer’s aversion to a Samaritan. Samaritans were viewed as the lowest of the low, unclean people who had perverted Judaism by marrying outside of the culture, taking on new religious practices. That’s why labeling this parable as the “Good Samaritan” is necessary – the “good” is meant to sound like an oxymoron to the initial hearers of this story. The Lawyer would not trust a Samaritan and might not even travel into places where Samaritans were known to live, so for Jesus to set a Samaritan up as the “neighbor” in this story is anathema to the Lawyer. It is completely unexpected.

In contrast to the Samaritan, we have the priest and the Levite, men who are leaders within the Jewish faith. They avoid what they perceive to be a potentially polluting situation because of their adherence to the rules – the ritual impurity of interacting with a potentially dead body. Or maybe they’re afraid – the road described between Jerusalem and Jericho is a steep hill with twists and turns – making it ideal for robbers to hide. What if the priest and the Levite were being set up to fall into the same trap when they helped the man in the ditch? They were not willing to take that chance, for whatever reason, whether out of adherence to the rules or fear of the same thing happening to them.

The Samaritan does not allow himself to be constricted by rules or fear. He does not think of what social convention dictates about he should interact with this person – he only sees someone in need. The Samaritan sees another person, a neighbor, someone close in proximity to him, who needs help. He is the one who has compassion, the one who shows mercy. He acts in love. He is able to put himself in the place of the person who is hurting and recognize that what is most important is his safety. He is the neighbor to the man in the ditch.    

The Lawyer recognizes that compassion is the right action – he knows that it is better to care for someone who is hurting than to avoid their pain. He tells Jesus when Jesus asks who the neighbor is “The one who showed him mercy.” The Lawyer must learn from this outsider – the one whom he would have otherwise rejected – what the love of God and neighbor truly looks like. The Samaritan’s compassion reveals something far beyond what it means to be a neighbor to someone, it reveals the humanness of those that we stereotype into the other.

But the Samaritan isn’t just a rescuer. He doesn’t just take the beaten man out of immediate danger – he makes sure that the man’s wounds are cleaned and bandaged, that he has safe lodging, and that he is cared for by the innkeeper. He will come back to check in on the man’s safety and wellbeing later in the week. The Samaritan puts himself in a position of healing, of on-going care, along with the innkeeper. He doesn’t just assume that the man in the ditch will be able to find help from others, he connects him with support and comfort. He develops a relationship with him.  It’s the difference between putting a band-aid on a deep cut and expecting it to heal, and carefully cleaning it out, getting medical assistance, and ensuring its continued care.

So where do you see yourself in this story? Are you the man in the ditch? The robbers? The priest or the Levite? The Samaritan? The innkeeper? The Lawyer?

I think we all want to be the Samaritan. We know that what the Samaritan does is what God ultimately wants us to do in the face of tragedy or injustice. We all know that inside ourselves is the capacity to love each other the way God wants us to love. But sometimes our culture, our social systems, our preconceived notions stand in our way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we can’t be the Samaritan, but in many cases we may fall short. In some cases we may be closer to the priest or the Levite. I know I am guilty of this – of occasionally seeing someone who might be in need or hurting and avoiding them because I don’t have time or I’m afraid of being taken advantage of or being made unsafe. I fail to see the people who are in need of help.

In the case of what’s going on in our country today, we have broken and bloodied bodies to account for. These bodies are not the root of the problem, however. In order to properly heal this situation, we need to address the larger systemic issues in our world that contribute to the expansion and intensity of violence between people who perceive the other to be bad, or wrong, or threatening. In a post made today on the Religion Dispatches website, theologian and ethicist Emilie Townes got to the heart of the matter:

“We must stop and look at ourselves—all of us. Take an account of how we sanction or contribute to the madness that has overtaken us—a calculating, hoarding madness that fails to take in the complexity of this nation and our world. The rising death toll and the classism, sexism, racism, heterosexist, trans-sexism, militarism, and more that fuel this disregard for human lives will not stop the violence until we decide to stop them and then act to make it so.”

What is at stake here, today, in our context, is injustice. Racial injustice. Economic injustice. LGBTQ injustice. Religious injustice. We have to acknowledge these systemic causes rather than the isolated incidents that have occurred. Systems of injustice in our country have been never really fully acknowledged or alleviated – we’ve made strides, for sure, but underneath there have continued to be forms of aggression and domination that have increased the distance between people living in the same community. We let fear dictate how we are to respond to situations of injustice – we let it overcome us and keep us from doing that which is compassionate. We skirt by on the other side of the road and shout to the man in the ditch how to get up and help himself, instead of tending to his wounds and making sure that healing is on its way.

Forms of injustice are even evident within the church. My own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, continues to struggle with the challenges of systemic racism. The ELCA is the least racially diverse protestant denomination in the U.S. – a staggering 96% of our denomination claims white European heritage. There is currently a movement within the church, Decolonize Lutheranism, which aims to point out the ways that Lutheranism has in some ways held so tightly to its cultural heritage that it fails to see how exclusive it has become. How, in some cases, the theological standpoints of defining oneself as Lutheran, such as justification by faith alone being extended to all, have been superseded by assuming that everyone in the church will be of the same background. So, even sometimes as Christians we can fall short of acting like the Samaritan in this parable. We can create spaces that make others feel unwelcome, or fail to include them and their stories in our communities.

Right now is when we need God’s help the most. When we need to be reminded that love prevails over death and destruction. When we remember that God’s only son proclaimed to us the necessity of proclaiming good news to the poor, healing the sick, releasing the imprisoned, and freeing the oppressed.

How can we go and do likewise? How can the Samaritan’s compassion translate to our own compassion in seeking justice? How do we translate our fears and mistrust in to love? If we turn to the advice that Paul gives the church in Colossae, we are called “to lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, as (we) bear fruit in every good work as we grow in the knowledge of God.” (Col 1:10) We can start by reaching out to those around us. Just like the Samaritan, we need to see and do. Instead of seeing the injustices that have been unveiled for us and letting them continue to harm, we need to act. By making connections with people we encounter on a daily basis. By checking in with those whom we know might be hurting, just to ask them how they are doing. By listening. By standing by. By giving a hug, or holding a hand. But most importantly advocating for justice that recognizes the full humanity of all people, but most importantly those who are oppressed, whether they are Black, Latino, LGBTQ, Muslim or any of the other communities in our country who face outright discrimination and hate. We must see the people in front of us rather than get caught up in abstracted ideas about groups of people which may not even be true.

Let’s start here. Right here. In this very chapel. Let us see and act in the simplest of ways. Our neighbors are those who are in closest proximity to us – the person sitting next to you, or behind you, the people up here in the front, and those out in the narthex. Some of us know each other. Some of us don’t. Some of us have been coming for years, and some of us are visiting for the first time. But all of us are here, now, in a community of worship and fellowship, brought together by our faith. I invite you to seek out your neighbors in this building, right now, and greet them. Share God’s peace with them. Give them a smile, a handshake, if they agree to it, a hug. Take this recognition of those around you right now, and leave this building today reminded that our neighbors don’t have to look like us or even have to be someone that we know in order for us to show compassion to them. Let us remember that in every time, the peace of God is always with us, especially when we are in community with others.

May the peace of God be always with you. Let us exchange signs of God’s peace with one another. Amen.

–Ms. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

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Making Our Way Ritually

Sunday, July 3rd, 2016

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Luke 24:13-35

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The Gospel according to Luke is very close to my heart in many ways. For example, this gospel’s author was a faithful physician; I married a faithful physician! And so, I am appreciative that our summer preacher series in Two Thousand Sixteen takes the Lucan horizon as its theme.

We are travelers, are we not, you and I? We are travelers together, making our way toward a horizon. It is a funny thing about horizons that they simultaneously serve as a point of orientation and, if focused upon too long, can serve to entirely disorient their observer. We travelers, you and I, as we make our way together, may at times stop and wonder whether we are really still on the path toward our destination. Are we still headed in the general direction of our goal, or has the horizon twisted our field of vision such that we have wandered off the road?

Jesus’ original followers were not known as Christians but rather as “followers of the way,” followers of the way of Jesus, that is. Confucians and Daoists are followers of the way as well, followers of the Dao. Christians, Confucians, and Daoists each have various ways of harmonizing two sides of the way coin, so to speak. The first side is an internal principle expressed in human life. The second is an external norm that sets the principle and measures that life. This is to say that we make our way not only by ourselves according to our own internal principles, but we make our way with others and accord our principles to the principles of these others, and for our collective well-being.

Still, wandering off the path toward the horizon is all too easy, assuming, of course, that we were ever properly on it in the first place. We may wonder, you and I, fellow travelers, whether where we thought we were going is really at the end of the road we are on. We may wonder if it is where we should be going, anyway. We may wonder if the wonders we have been promised if we ever manage to reach that point on the horizon were not, in fact, always only an illusion. Is this the way, or should we be going some other way?

Such is the situation of two disciples, journeying together to Emmaus, in the Gospel according to Luke:

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 

The way of these disciples, Cleopas and another unnamed, is uncertain. Each of the evangelists had an agenda in writing their particular take on the gospel. In the case of Saint Luke, the agenda was to demonstrate the continuity of the experience of the early church with the life and ministry of Jesus. To accomplish this, Luke wrote not one book but two: the Gospel according to Luke, which tells about the life and ministry of Jesus, and the Acts of the Apostles, which tells about the experience of the early church. Luke was writing for gentile Christians worried about their place as Roman citizens, and about whether the ongoing story of the church remains in continuity with the way of Jesus as predicted in the Hebrew scriptures. The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Yes, Christians can be good, upstanding Roman citizens; and yes, Christian experience is in continuity with the life and ministry of Christ. Here in the story of the disciples journeying together on the way to Emmaus, Jesus himself confirms for them that they are in fact on the way, in continuity with his own life and ministry, and in fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures.

Well, we know that it is Jesus confirming for the disciples that they are indeed on the way. The disciples themselves do not know this. To them, Jesus remains a stranger. Strange, is it not, that the disciples who had invested their lives in Jesus’ ministry and teaching and service would now be unable even to recognize him? Or perhaps not so strange, given that the disciples spent the whole of Jesus ministry misunderstanding him and rather missing the point entirely. Even as the one they had called “teacher” teaches them as they walk together along the road, Jesus remains unknown. The teaching is important, but alone is insufficient to confirm for the disciples that they are indeed on the way.

So the story continues:

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 

Teaching is important, but Jesus is made known and Jesus’ teaching is confirmed, and moreover realized, in ritual, namely, the ritual of the Eucharistic meal. It is only as Jesus performs the ritual of blessing, breaking, and giving bread that the disciples’ eyes are opened and recognition ignites. It is only in the light of this ritually encoded appearance that the teaching on the road is confirmed as authentic and true and reliable.

Ritual often gets a bad rap. Seen as reified and ossified, ritual in our late modern society is often taken as restricting liberty of conscience and freedom of the will. But just as Jeroslav Pelikan noted that tradition is the living faith of the dead, while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, so too we may say that ritual is the guide to remaining on the way, while ritualism is a map to nowhere. Our Confucian brothers and sisters are eloquent on this point, and so we listen to the Liji, the Book of Rites, noting that li meaning ritual is here translated “propriety.” I welcome this morning to read the passage my dear friend and colleague Dr. Bin Song, president of the Boston University Confucian Association.

故禮義也者,人之大端也,所以講信修睦而固人之肌膚之會、筋骸之束也。所以養生送死事鬼神之大端也。所以達天道順人情之大竇也。故唯聖人為知禮之不可以已也,故壞國、喪家、亡人,必先去其禮。

Thus propriety and righteousness are the great elements for man’s (character); it is by means of them that his speech is the expression of truth and his intercourse (with others) the promotion of harmony; they are (like) the union of the cuticle and cutis, and the binding together of the muscles and bones in strengthening (the body). They constitute the great methods by which we nourish the living, bury the dead, and serve the spirits of the departed. They supply the channels by which we can apprehend the ways of Heaven and act as the feelings of men require. It was on this account that the sages knew that the rules of ceremony could not be dispensed with, while the ruin of states, the destruction of families, and the perishing of individuals are always preceded by their abandonment of the rules of propriety.

We suffer greatly from a lack of ritual in late modern life. Just as the disciples recognized Jesus in his enactment of the Eucharistic ritual sacrificing his own body, we recognize ourselves and one another and our shared humanity in rituals as simple as a handshake and as complex as global geopolitical diplomacy. It is in ritual that we commune and communicate; it is in ritual that we open ourselves to the power of presence and partnership. As Howard Thurman reminds us, “people, all people, belong to each other, and those who shut themselves away diminish themselves, and those who shut others away from them destroy themselves.” Ritual is the medium of our knowing and trusting and belonging to one another. When it fails or when we fail to either properly enact the ritual or even bother to enact it at all, we are severely diminished and often as not destroyed. “The ruin of states, the destruction of families, and the perishing of individuals are always preceded by their abandonment of ritual.”

Today we call to mind the life and ministry of Professor Elie Wiesel, who died yesterday. Grant to him eternal rest, O God, and may light perpetual shine upon him. Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, teacher, humanitarian, journalist, author, public intellectual, Elie Wiesel suffered from perhaps the greatest abandonment of ritual recognition of our common humanity in the modern period, and went on to craft and establish and enact so many rituals to restore our common humanity. “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” Rather than dulling the conscience and the will, ritual restrains our tendency toward indifference and allows us to recognize one another.

We have not learned this lesson. We have not learned to not only allow but to invite our selfish desires and neuroses to be restrained that we might see and know and love one another. In a time of such vast societal failure to recognize our common faith, why are we surprised when nine people are murdered during a bible study? In a time of such vast societal failure to recognize our common love, why are we surprised when fifty people are murdered in a gay nightclub? In a time of such vast societal failure to recognize our common wealth, why are we surprised when a nation decides they know better and can do better on their own? In a time of such vast societal failure to recognize our common dignity, why are we surprised that a plan to build a two thousand mile wall between us and our neighbors has gained such political traction? “The ruin of states, the destruction of families, and the perishing of individuals are always preceded by their abandonment of ritual.”

Perhaps part of our problem is that we are afraid of ritual. We are afraid to participate in ritual. Ritual can seem arcane and impenetrable and so high that we cannot attain it. After all, does not ritual require preparation? Does it not require indoctrination into the cult of the ritual actors? Does it not require confession and repentance and absolution? Does it not require that first we go and be reconciled? Does ritual not demand that we participate with a sincere will and a sincere heart?

Actually, no. Our Confucian brothers and sisters are again eloquent on this point, and so I invite Dr. Bin Song to read again from the Liji, the Book of Rites.

故禮之於人也,猶酒之有蘗也,君子以厚,小人以薄。故聖王修義之柄、禮之序,以治人情。故人情者,聖王之田也。修禮以耕之,陳義以種之,講學以耨之,本仁以聚之,播樂以安之。故禮也者,義之實也。協諸義而協,則禮雖先王未之有,可以義起也。義者藝之分、仁之節也,協於藝,講於仁,得之者強。仁者,義之本也,順之體也,得之者尊。

Therefore the rules of propriety are for man what the yeast is for liquor. The superior man by (his use of them) becomes better and greater. The small man by his neglect of them becomes meaner and worse. Therefore the sage kings cultivated and fashioned the lever of righteousness and the ordering of ceremonial usages, in order to regulate the feelings of men. Those feelings were the field (to be cultivated by) the sage kings. They fashioned the rules of ceremony to plough it. They set forth the principles of righteousness with which to plant it. They instituted the lessons of the school to weed it. They made love the fundamental subject by which to gather all its fruits, and they employed the training in music to give repose (to the minds of learners). Thus, rules of ceremony are the embodied expression of what is right. If an observance stand the test of being judged by the standard of what is right, although it may not have been among the usages of the ancient kings, it may be adopted on the ground of its being right. (The idea of) right makes the distinction between things, and serves to regulate (the manifestation of) humanity. When it is found in anything and its relation to humanity has been discussed, the possessor of it will be strong. Humanity is the root of right, and the embodying of deferential consideration. The possessor of it is honored.

It is by participating in ritual that we become better and greater. It is by neglect of ritual that we become meaner and worse. The fruit of ritual can be summed up as love. It is not that we must become sincere in order to participate in ritual. Rather, we must participate in ritual in order to become sincere. The disciples were decidedly insincere. They did not know whether they were even still on the way, or if the way they thought they were on was really the way at all. The disciples could not recognize their own teacher and mentor and leader. They were not sincere; they were foolish and slow of heart! After participating in the ritual with Jesus, then they became sincere.

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Go and do likewise. Amen.

–Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC†, University Chaplain for Community Life

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A Summer Pause

Sunday, June 26th, 2016

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Luke 9:51-62

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There is no text for this sermon.

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

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Ahab’s Shadow

Sunday, June 19th, 2016

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Luke 8:230-29

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Introduction

“I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.”  

On this Father’s Day many of us think of our parents who rest now in greater light and on a farther shore.  You think today of your inheritance, your real, that is spiritual, that is familial, that is named inheritance.  What is yours?  What is that quintessential something, that no one else perhaps has to carry forward, that is yours, that you will not, cannot, should not, give away?  And what about our shared inheritance, as a globe, as a country, as a church?

“I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.”

With this terse refusal, Naboth lost his garden, his head, and, in fact, the very inheritance he hoped to protect.  For Ahab—though he sulked, and though he fasted, and though he moaned, and though he allowed Jezebel to take charge—King Ahab at last had his wish, his vineyard.  Just here, Ahab’s shadow begins to fall.

Israel nine centuries before Jesus went sliding down a slippery slope, pushed and pulled by the influence of increasingly poor leadership.  Poor leadership.  After David and Solomon, the nation’s fortuned declined steadily, under other, lesser kings.  Who remembers Jereboam? Or Nimri?  Or Omri?  Or, today, Omri’s son, Ahab?  BUSTH has a long history of excellent teaching in Hebrew Scripture:  Elmer Leslie, Harrell Beck, Kathe Darr.  They have remembered, and helped us to do so, too.  Old Samuel had told them years before:  You want a King?  You want a King.  Everybody else has one, so you want one, too.  All right, you will get your king, and with your king, a whole basket of lasting trouble.

Ahab is remembered in Scripture because, in hindsight, he symbolized the progressive disintegration of Israelite society.   The failings of the leader, somehow, uncannily, were seen in retrospect to represent a deeper and far wider malaise, in a society that year by year increasingly placed the poor at the mercy of the rich.  Ahab’s shadow, part of the lengthening shadow of predatory, mendacious leadership in ancient Israel, has had a long, long reach–right up to today’s newspaper.

Ahab shadow—what was his capricious craving all about?  

He desired, coveted, his poor neighbor’s little plot.  And, in a way, why not?  After all, he was the King!  Hey.  Rank has its privileges.  To the victor go the spoils.  What do you give a 500 pound gorilla? (ANYTHING HE WANTS!)  I mean—this was a personal matter.  It had nothing to do with public policy.  The nation was prosperous and safe, thanks to shrewd management and the alliance with Tyre and Sidon, sealed with Jezebel’s kiss.  This was a small matter.  Kings have stolen a whole lot more.

What did Ahab want with that little, secret, private pleasure?

What would provoke a King, like Ahab, so to desire a tiny vineyard, like Naboth’s?

Ahab’s Shadow:  Looking back at David

Perhaps…the stresses of public life caused Ahab to desire a little personal pleasure.  After all, he might have reasoned, even in the Camelot days of David, there was the matter of the beautiful blonde, Bathsheba.  Even in the halcyon glory days of an earlier generation, still there was a dark side, and Urriah the Hittite and Psalm 51.   If David could have Bathsheba, surely Ahab could desire a little vineyard, the inheritance of Naboth and his faith, and turn a little profit, plowing under the vines and planting a regular garden.  Like they do in Egypt, say.   Did Ahab desire to be like David?

Ahab’s Shadow:  Tired of the Trivia

Perhaps…the trappings of power and leadership changed Ahab.  As Roy Smyres used to say about episcopal leaders, “They hear every day what wonderful people they are and what a great job they are doing—and, amazingly, some of them—START TO BELIEVE IT!”  Visibility, power, position:  they corrupt.  Maybe it takes one to know one.  You get distant.  You don’t visit in the home as much, pace

J Wesley.  You become insulated.  You rise above.  You look down.  You forget what it takes.  Bishop Herbert Skeete, once a kindly and compassionate pastor in Harlem, came up here to lead in New England and then retired.  He referred in his 1996 valediction (July, U Mass, NEJurisdictional conference) to the vast majority of his little New England churches as  (I quote him exactly) “eurocentric havens of mediocrity”.  A little exhaustion, a little frustration?   My, my.  I guess you get bitter, hardened.  The hurts and gifts of the Lilliputians under you fade.  “L’eglise—C’est moi”.  Yes, General Superintendent.  Yes, King.  Those lay folks, clergy don’t need the encouragement of my example.  Naboth can get along without a vineyard.  The heck with his inheritance, the cultivated vineyard.  The heck with their history, of live free or die.  It doesn’t matter that much, really, now, does it?  Did Ahab get tired of the small stuff?

Ahab’s Shadow: Accomplishment

Perhaps…the endless contention and intractable difference of leadership in a republic—in any institution really—“got to” Ahab.  After all, he was King!  Couldn’t he even organize and execute, on his own, the purchase of a vineyard? Some years ago thirty UM pastors from large churches gathered in Minneapolis.  We worshiped at Hennepin church.  Rod Wilmouth, the lead pastor there, preached a great sermon on the theme of faith that moves mountains.  His sermon title, though, was accidentally printed not as intended, “Faith that Can Move Mountains”, but, rather, as “Faith that Mountains Can Move”!   He said, “And I thought I was in charge here!”   As a public leader, sometimes, you can’t win.  You don’t succeed.  You fight city hall, tooth and nail—and you are the mayor!  Did he just want a sense of accomplishment?

Ahab’s Shadow:  Marital Dynamics

Perhaps…this all has to do, then and now, with family dysfunction.  Jezebel, an early enabler, acts out for her sulking mate his lust for the vineyard.  Isn’t that a picture?  I can imagine the political cartoons of the day—“Impeach the King–and her husband too!”  She orchestrates the media, the courts, the public opinion of the day, the powers that be.  So the nation becomes a messy place.  A place where it’s hard to tell who is telling the truth.  A place where the spoken public word is not always verifiable.  A place where innocent are found guilty.  A place where the apparatus of state is used for personal gain.  ‘Hard to imagine such a nation, isn’t it?  Or is it?

Jezebel is not really to blame here.  She just executes her husband’s, her King’s desire.  The shadow is his, not hers.

Be careful dear friend.  We become the servants, unwittingly, of those whom we most want to please.  It is important for Jezebel and for you to know whom we are trying to please in life.  We are slaves of that one.

Faith in Christ, the faith of Jesus Christ better said, is God’s gift and frees us, radically and truly frees us from all forms of enslavement to pleasing others.  Paradoxically, the faith of Jesus Christ does so by re-enslaving us—to Christ alone.  In Him.  See where you are—in the cosmic apocalypse of Christ.  See what time it is—the time when new creation supplants creation.  Hear the Gospel:  There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male or female.  There is no longer gay nor straight.  No one can serve two Masters.  The life we now live in the flesh we live by the faith of Christ.  You are His.

Who do you want to please? Did Ahab become caught up in unhealthy family systems?

Ahab’s Shadow: Convenience

None of these, finally, is the marrow, or the buried treasure of the Scripture today, nor the truth of our own time either.

In spite, or perhaps because of his military success and material surplus, Ahab desired…at depth…and this is the tragedy of his tale… a more convenient God.  Ahab desired a less inconvenient deity.  Ahab desired, through all these other lesser cravings, a more compliant Lord.  One more in the mold of the nations, more Jezebel and less Elijah.  And here the shadow truly lengthens and fully falls.

Ahab shadowy desire, apocalyptically revealed here as truth, in the manner detected and discerned by the wise through the ages, by W James, L Martyn and St Paul, in the odd moment, by apocalypse truth happens, his desire was for a less austere God, one less inclined to invade human space with haunting, troubling questions about life and death and meaning and love and…especially… JUSTICE.

A little Elijah goes a long way.  He walks into the King’s court and shouts, “One of us is cursed and I think it’s you!…Look…there…dogs will lick your blood.”  A little of that goes a long way.

Is this really– MORE ABOUT US THAN IT IS ABOUT HIM?

Ahab’s Shadow:  Our Own?

Israel remembered Ahab’s shadowy desire for a more convenient God, not out of reverence for Ahab, but because his desire somehow revealed the waxing national desire for a little lower heaven, a little lighter covenant, a little more convenient God.   As the distant mirror of the Scripture may teach us, we are so interested because we know this figure and this desire so well.

We, too, want a little more convenient deity.  One who will affirm our proclivities and ignore our cruelties

We know this Ahab well.  Always a little sideways to the truth…Politically able, morally twisted…at heart faithless…looking for more convenience than the “inheritance of the fathers” allows…at heart hoping for an easy chance, the lottery of life, something for nothing, a quick pleasure, a garden delight.

We get the leadership we deserve.

On the horizon today we hear and see demagoguery—America First, Birtherist, Misogynist, Racist, Xenophobic, Narcissistic (don’t you love all these Greek rooted words?) bigotry.  I sure did that well. ‘Low Energy’.  That was a one day kill.  Words are beautiful things.

Some express surprise, a sense of mistake, regarding the nomination in question.  Yet there is no surprise or mistake about the nomination in question.  80% of voters in one party—grand?, old?–agree with these three propositions:  Muslims should be banned.  A wall should be built along the Rio Grande.  Undocumented immigrants of all ages and stages should rounded up, arrested, jailed, and deported. (New York Review of Books, p 8-10, June, 2016) If you are in conversation with a member of such a party, chances are 4 out of 5 that you are in conversation with these views.  No surprise.  No mistake.  You see?  The shadow falls on us.

Over time, we get the leadership we deserve.

Today we pray for the Orlando dead.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do so, as in gathering, and vigil, and silence, we have done all week.  First, and foremost,  we turn our spirits toward their loved ones and families and friends.  We return to the very themes preached exactly one year ago here, following Charleston, regarding gun violence.  Our BU SPH Dean Sandro Galea has furthered that argument, with strength, this very week.  

Yet, as a Chapel in the Methodist tradition, we also have a particular reckoning, now.  United Methodism has been part and parcel of a part of our shadowed culture that has fomented and augmented dehumanization of gay people, bigotry against sexual minorities.  Only two active northeastern bishops (Johnson, Devadhar) put their name this May to a shared letter rejecting in no uncertain terms this abject denominational failure.  Silent, silent were the vast majority of active general superintendents.  Now the chickens have come home to roost.  It’s time.  The time for discussion is over, washed away in the blood of Orlando.  Local churches in Charge Conferences need to stop funding that supports bigotry, as, in one possible example,  in three general funds:  world service, the episcopal fund, and Africa University.  Annual Conferences need to go ahead and ordain and deploy gay people, as many are doing, the silence of their bishops not withstanding—seven now across the country, including the actions taken in New England this week.  Bigotry (largely of southern US and Africa Methodists) is, from this day forward, globally, generationally, and grittily rejected.  Orlando is to Methodism and the Gay issue what Kent State was to America and the war in Vietnam, an apocalyptic moment when those who may still have thought otherwise, people of sound mind and heart, now turn.  It’s time.  What the sad incompetence of the General Church, the General Conference, and the silent General Superintendents has ignored, look! by apocalypse!, the local churches and annual conferences now address.  We at Marsh Chapel adamantly and vigorously marry gay people and employ and deploy gay clergy.  Where we can support others to do so, we shall.

One northeastern bishop this week callously sent out a letter about Orlando without even mentioning the targeting of the gay population.  A minister in his conference wrote him the following:

I was shocked that no mention was made in your statement about the key issue the country

and our church are wrestling with: the oppression of gays. As long as our denomination and its leaders

not only continue the oppression of gays, but ignore their pain in the midst of being slaughtered….

we will have truly made ourselves irrelevant in the healing of the world in this day and time.

With a heavy heart…

No, we want a little lower heaven, a little lighter covenant, a little less inconvenient God.

Israel saw in hindsight that Ahab’s shadow had become their own—the easier worship of a less inconvenient God.

It isn’t about Ahab, it’s about Israel.  It isn’t about others, it’s about us.

Elijah, Are You with Us?

Elijah, in the end, speaks.   Elijah never dies.  His voice is active, coming in forms we least expect, and sitting in empty chairs left vacant by faithful hearts.  Elijah—rumpled and tousled.  Elijah—skeptical of concentrated power.  Elijah—with a passion for compassion.  Elijah—concerned for the left—out.  His voice irrupts now and then.   So we are right to leave a chair, some space, vacant for him.

I have not heard his voice in a while, but he does not die.

Almost forty years ago this spring, on at least one evening, you heard him full of compassion.  This spring has overtones from 1968, all the way to the California primary.

On June 5, 1968, at 8am our phone rang, at breakfast.  My dad had gone to Chicago for a denominational meeting.  Breakfast with three younger siblings at age 13 is not exactly heaven on earth.  ‘It’s for you’ my sister said.  Now that is a first, a phone call, for me, at breakfast.  My father said:  You probably don’t know this yet, but your favorite, your hero, Robert Kennedy was shot last night in California, and probably will die today or tomorrow.  I know how much he meant to you, and I am sorry for our loss.  It is tragic, but we will get through this.  As a pastor he always had a knack for showing up where he was least expected and most needed, least expected and most needed.  Wouldn’t every minister want to be so remembered?

Two months earlier, on April 4, Robert Kennedy was on his way to accept victory in the Indiana primary, five painful years after his brother’s death and just weeks before his own assassination, a few hours after the killing of Martin Luther King.  Galatians 6:14 speaks of a triple crucifixion.  One redeeming feature of our own hurt is that it helps us proffer compassion to others who hurt.  

Elijah keeps heaven high and the covenant heavy and God, God.  ELIJAH!  We wait for your voice today!

Kennedy spoke to an inner city rally of black and Polish voters.  They had not heard the news, which he gave.  There is a generation deep moan that barks from the crowd.  I hear it still.  He stands, rumpled shirt and tousled hair before a single microphone, note-less and alone.  What courage to stand there that night, and then, Elijiah-like, to speak:

*I have some very sad news for you…

*In this difficult time it is perhaps well to ask what kind of nation we are, and what direction we want to move in…

*Do we want bitterness, hatred, a desire for revenge, greater polarization of black and white?…

*Or, with ML King, do we seek understanding, comprehension, to replace violence and the stain of violence with compassion?…

*For those tonight who feel hatred and mistrust, I can also feel in my own heart that same kind of feeling.  I had a member of my family killed…

*But we have to make an effort in this country to understand, to get beyond this time…

*Aeschylus wrote:  “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our despair and against our will comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

*What we need in this country is not division, hatred, violence, and lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion and justice…

*We need to “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

Conclusion

We still need to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

We still need to see thing as the never were and say, “Why not?”

We still need to see wrong and try to right it, see suffering and try to heal it, see war and try to end it.

Perhaps Elijah will take his place, fill his chair, and lift his voice again in our time, and shine some light through Ahab’s shadow?

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

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

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Forgiven

Sunday, June 12th, 2016

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Luke 7:36-8:3

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Introduction

Please forgive the intrusive nature of this sermon.   For I want to begin by taking a walk with you into the attic of your soul.  Though we are friends, it is not my right to initiate such a visit.  Though we are pastors and parishioners, it is not our right to force such a trek back up through the mist of time.  You would need to make an invitation, yourself.  Even to suggest the climb, without any initiative on your part, is rude of me.  I apologize.

The Gospel, however, intrudes upon our very souls, whether the preacher has a right or not.  As kingfishers catch fire, and dragonflies draw flame, so truth—that light in which we see light—advances upon us.  So we go ahead.  We walk together upstairs to the landing.  You kindly have turned on the hall light.  Thank you.  I wonder if this is a sign from you that you will welcome this joint venture?  We pull down in the chain that loosens the attic portal.  You know how that little door in the ceiling falls open, and slowly a flank of wooden stairs comes down,  and down, and down, and touches our feet.  We are ready to climb up into the darkness.

Watch your step.  You have not been up into the cobwebs and the dust of memory, the mothballs and the coverlets of history, the grime and the darkness of the past.   It is a little slow going.   This is your attic, though.  You know it as well as you know your own past.  In fact, it is your past, box by box, and crate by crate.  I have no right to be here, and if you ask me, I will leave.  A man has a right to his own regrets.  They are not common property.  They are yours, these boxes and labels and shoes and hangers and records and amulets and souveniers from the dusty past.   One of you is looking over at an old service uniform from the great war—brown and rumpled.  Another sees bobby sox and a political poster—I LIKE IKE.  She has stumbled past three old Beatles albums—greatest hits, Abbey Road, the White album.  I notice a Jim Croce tape.  I wonder if it still plays?  He thumbs through a pile of other newer albums.  Of course there are lots of photographs.  What kind of an attic would it be without boxes and records and photographs?

This is the attic of memory.  No, we won’t stop at the wardrobe

Today. The wardrobe is for another day, a day of hope and imagination.  Lions and witches come from wardrobes.  Today we are looking back, though.  We are going to stumble and claw our way over into the back corner.  There is not much light here.  It is a long time since anyone came back in, all this way.  Dust, cobwebs—it makes you sneeze.

Over in the corner there is a small, low box, carefully closed, and tied around with a little bailer’s twine.  This is yours.  No one else knows it is here, or if they do they have forgotten or never understood or just don’t care.  But you know and remember and understand and care.  I really do not want to be here, and you probably don’t want to either.  I—for it is not my business.  You—because in black ink, now dusty, is penned across the top of the box a single, awful, hellish word—regret.  Regret is a short synonym for hell.   And up here in the attic of memory, off in the corner, sits this stupid box, which means nothing to anyone, except to you.  There it is—a single box labeled “regret”.

Open it.

Go ahead.  Try it.  If you want.  I think you have wanted to come up here, but just never had 20 minutes of quiet to do so.  Remember last summer when you thought about the box?  And remember that early morning dream?  That was a strange thing.  I want to encourage you to open it.  Hold it in both hands.  Untie the twine.  Loosen the top.  Turn it over, and let it all fall out.  

That was a gutsy thing to do.  Good for you.

The reason the box was marked “regret” is that this is one thing you regret.  You have a regret.  That is part of being human.  Can you live with being human?  Can you live with being a little lower than the angels?  How do I know all this?  As my great aunt would say, “If you’re so smart how come you aren’t rich?”  A real good question.  I know because I have boxes in my attic too.  They too are covered with cobwebs.  I too make my visits, my attic climbs, very seldom.  And, yes, I know about regret.  Not just vicariously, either.  There is nothing quite as bitter.  If only…

I asked to come up here with you for a reason.  Up in the attic here, with that swinging bare light bulb and the Johnny Mathis record and all this dust, we may feel God.

Look at the box again, and all its contents spread across the floor.  In the dark I cannot see the floor, but after 22 years and 7 pulpits I truly doubt if any of it would surprise me.  After reading the Bible and Shakespeare and a few decades worth of the New York Times, there is not much that surprises.  But it is different for you.  This is your attic, your memory, your box, your regret.  It is YOURS.  In a way, this box is more yours than any of the others.

In this box are the articles of impeachment brought by life against us.  They are multiple and they are damning and unlike civil and criminal law, the laws of the soul do not give way to lawyerly cunning.  And there is no vote, no 2/3 majority needed.

What is that you say?  Not you?  Never a cutting word?  Never a selfish deed?  Never an unhealthy habit?  Never a compulsive trend?  Never a myopic judgment?  Never a temptation accepted?  Never an ungenerous year?  Never a non-giving decade?   Not you?  Never a misspent dollar or day or dream?  You don’t go to enough funerals.

But the box doesn’t  lie.  Nor does the conscience.  Nor does the memory.  Nor does life.  

It simply spells “regret”.  That, I regret.

God Forgives You

There is something that both can and must be said, as we pack up the regret box.  It is not a human thing to say, though we are the only saying beings around so we do the best we can.  It is a God word.  And only God speaks God words.

First, looking down at the dusty cardboard of past regret—something that if not removed can fester and infect and cripple—first there is this.  God forgives you.  It is, according to the Scripture, the divine promise and intention to forgive and to forgive.  Abraham felt it.  Joseph practiced it.  Hosea proclaimed it.  Jesus taught us to pray for it.  And for 2000 years the church has tried to exemplify, embody this one word.  God forgives.  John Wesley asked his preachers one initial question.  “Do you know God to be a pardoning God?”  Now that, in the face of a box marked “regret”, that is good news.  In the face of the worst rejection and the most regrettable misjudgment on earth, God practices a powerful forgiveness.  

You know in the midst of all the harshness of the religious right and the flightiness of the New Age, it can be hard to hear the central truth about God and about us.  God forgives.  

God forgives before we are up in the attic at all.  God forgives when we realize what we have to regret.  God forgives as we carry the regret around.  God forgives when we hear and when we do not and it does not depend on our hearing.  

Do you know God to be a pardoning God?  If so, you know God, the God of Jesus Christ.

Here are Scriptures worth memorizing about God who forgives….

If you forgive others their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you.

Lord how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?  … I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Other People Forgive You

But maybe that is not what keeps you awake, not what makes you linger today in the attic.  You may well believe and trust that God forgives.  But what about those you have regrettably hurt?  

This can be particularly hard for those who have grown up around especially hardened parents and other adults.   If you have not heard an encouraging word much growing up, it can be hard later in life to believe that those other humans around you can be gracious.

They can be.

As a matter of fact, most of the time they are.  More than most of the time.  People forgive, more than you know and more than you may think you deserve.  It really delights me.  People have a profound capacity to forgive and forget.  It is God given, and it is real and it is good.  

I think of the waiting father and the prodigal son.

I think of Paul forgiving Peter’s two faced behavior.

I think of Augustine’s mother forgiving his selfishness.

I think of Erasmus forgiving the wayward Popes.

I think of Grant and Lee at Appomatox.

I think of Abraham Lincoln walking through Richmond.

I think of the Marshall Plan and rebuilding of Germany in the 1940’s

I think of women and men, night after day, for millenia.

You may have to ask sometime for forgiveness.  You probably should.  Say, “I’m sorry”.  Like the Fonz, who could never utter the word, “I was wrong..”  But my experience is that most people most of the time when confronted with a heartfelt, sincere apology from a person of integrity will say, “Don’t worry about it.  I forgive you.”  It is one of the greatest things about other people.  You may have to give it a little time.  You may have to pray about it.  You may have to trust a little.  But—other people will forgive you.

Forgiving Yourself

But that may not be what holds you here in the attic.  As a matter of fact, I bet that the box is still up here, wrapped in twine and covered with dirt and marked regret, for another reason.  It’s one thing for God to forgive you.  It’s one thing to accept another’s kindness.  But in the end  that still leaves you a few sandwiches short of a picnic, and a few french fries short of a happy meal.  God has forgiven you!  Your neighbor has forgiven you!  Now comes the hard part.

You have to forgive yourself.  You have to let yourself off the hook.  You have to find a way to admit to yourself that you are not 101% perfect.  You have to, well, accept your own acceptance.  And that can be a lot easier said than done.  Because we have a way of holding onto what poisons us.  We have a way of just wrapping ourselves in a miserable kind of self-conceited self-condemnation.  Up in the attic.

Lent is a good time to dump your guilt.  God doesn’t want it. No neighbor finally has much use for it.  So why is it still in the box?   What good is it?  Get rid of it.  When it doubt, throw it out.

God forgives you.  So does your neighbor.  Forgive yourself.

Matter of fact, while we are here, up in the attic—let’s just take that box out of here.  I’ll hold the ladder for you while your coming down.  You can carry it, with a little homiletical help.  If we hurry we can get out on the curb before noon, and the heavenly garbage truck always comes by this part of your mental world Sunday at noon.  There, it’s out on the curb, and soon it will be gone for good.  William Blake:

And throughout all eternity

I forgive you, you forgive me.

And throughout all eternity

I forgive you, you forgive me.

And throughout all eternity

I forgive you, you forgive me.

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

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

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In Communion

Sunday, June 5th, 2016

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Luke 7:11-17

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There is no text for this sermon.

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Forming a Trinity

Sunday, May 29th, 2016

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Luke 7:1-10

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“Lord, who has formed me out of mud,

and has redeemed me through thy blood,

and sanctified me to do good;

Purge all my sins done heretofore:

for I confess my heavy score,

and I will strive to sin no more.

Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,

with faith, with hope, with charity;

that I may run, rise, rest with thee.”

  • George Herbert, “Trinity Sunday”

Please, be seated.

Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday, the day of the year when preachers are wont to tie themselves in knots attempting to explain one of the knottiest doctrines in the history of religion: how is it that three persons are one god? Today, a week later, we are at least one step removed from having to consider the arcane intricacies of God’s life in trinity. Instead, today, one week after Trinity Sunday and two weeks after Pentecost, we are moving back into ordinary time, that long slog through summer and autumn when we are less concerned with God in Godself and more concerned with God’s life with us. In making this transition, I invite us this week to turn back to the vision of God’s life in trinity while moving forward into God’s life with us by asking, “so what?” So what that God is one in three persons? So what that God is inherently relational? Where do we, human persons, you and I, fit into this “three equals one” equation?

Alas, addressing this “so what?” question requires decamping into an area of Christian thought that may actually be more arcane than the doctrine of the trinity itself: theosis; divinization; deification. The idea that humanity has the capacity, by God’s grace, to participate in divine life arises biblically from Paul and from John. For Paul, across the aisle in stained glass over the lectern, humans are adopted by God to be joint heirs with Christ, are resurrected body and spirit, and “with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3: 18). John, right next to Paul in the window, puts the words in Jesus’ own mouth, as he defends himself from the charge of blasphemy: “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ – and the scripture cannot be annulled – can you say that the one whom the father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?” The refrain was picked up in the early church. So Irenaeus: “If the Word became a human, it was so humans may become gods.” So Clement of Alexandria: “the Word of God became a human so that you might learn from a human how to become a god.” So Athanasius, watching over us here in stained glass, “Just as the Lord, putting on the body, became a human, so also we humans are both deified through his flesh, and henceforth inherit everlasting life.” So Augustine, also in stained glass: “But the one that justifies also deifies, for by justifying that one makes sons of God… To make human beings gods, that one was made human who was God.” This idea of theosis, of divinization, of deification, sounds like it must be heretical and yet it is at the very heart of the promise of salvation. You and I and we and us, all of us, every one of us, may participate, may partake, may share in the commonwealth of the divine life by the grace of God.

But how? How do we participate? How do we partake? How do we share? This is where things become difficult. Do we as human beings accomplish divinization? Is it a human work? Or is divinization something God does in us? If God does this work in us, how is it brought about? And how do we know if we are partakers in the divine life or not? There is no common Christian witness on these questions, and indeed it is precisely on matters of salvation and its accomplishment that churches most often divide.

This morning I would like to suggest that it might not be possible to arrive at an adequate response to these questions relying solely upon the Christian witness. I suggest that we move further afield to consider wisdom from beyond the confessional boundaries of Christianity. We only need fear doing so if we want to insist that God is so small as to be constrained to a single book, a single concept, or a single institution. If not, we may instead move forward confident that all truth is God’s truth, as the Holy Spirit of God leads us forward into the freedom of all truth.

Let us consider, then, a passage from the Zhongyong, the Doctrine of the Mean, a chapter from the Liji, the Book of Rites, a classical Confucian text. My dear friend and colleague, Bin Song, is here to read the text in Chinese and English:

唯天下至誠,為能盡其性;能盡其性,則能盡人之性;能盡人之性,則能盡物之性;能盡物之性,則可以贊天地之化育;可以贊天地之化育,則可以與天地參矣。

“Only those who are absolutely sincere can fully develop their nature. If they can fully develop their nature, they can then fully develop the nature of others. If they can fully develop the nature of others, they can then fully develop the nature of things. If they can fully develop the nature of things, they can then assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth. If they can assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth, they can thus form a trinity with Heaven and Earth.”

We hear in this text as well the prospect of human participation in trinity, although it would be too much to claim that the Confucian and Christian trinities are in any way precise analogues. Instead, what is helpful here is that, tracing back through all of the dependent clauses, the prospect of a human being forming a trinity with heaven and earth depends upon the absolute sincerity of that individual. “Sincerity” is the translation most frequently employed for the Chinese word “Cheng,” which has a rich set of resonances of meaning, including also truthfulness and realness. Sincerity for Confucians has a particular understanding having to do with restraint of the many competing desires that make up the self in order to arrive at a unified harmony among the desires and with the natural, cosmic order. Sincerity has to do with according oneself with the mandate of heaven.

Perhaps, then, a better translation of Cheng would be not so much sincerity as faithfulness. After all, faithfulness, for Christians, involves according oneself with the will, with the purposes, with the mandate of God. It is accomplished in many ways: in prayer, in spiritual discipline, in worship, in study, in sacrament, in service, and more. Most importantly, faithfulness is a partnership between God whose will is made manifest, and we human beings, who seek to accord ourselves with God.

A wonderful example of this sort of faithfulness comes in the Gospel according to Luke. Another dear friend and colleague, Greylyn Hydinger, reads to us from the seventh chapter of Luke in Greek and in English, to remind us that Christian texts come to us no more in English than the Confucian text we heard earlier.

Ἐπειδὴ ἐπλήρωσεν πάντα τὰ ῥήματα αὐτοῦ εἰς τὰς ἀκοὰς τοῦ λαοῦ, εἰσῆλθεν εἰς Καφαρναούμ. Ἑκατοντάρχου δέ τινος δοῦλος κακῶς ἔχων ἤμελλεν τελευτᾶν, ὃς ἦν αὐτῷ ἔντιμος. ἀκούσας δὲ περὶ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ἀπέστειλεν πρὸς αὐτὸν πρεσβυτέρους τῶν Ἰουδαίων ἐρωτῶν αὐτὸν ὅπως ἐλθὼν διασώσῃ τὸν δοῦλον αὐτοῦ. οἱ δὲ παραγενόμενοι πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν παρεκάλουν αὐτὸν σπουδαίως λέγοντες ὅτι ἄξιός ἐστιν ᾧ παρέξῃ τοῦτο· ἀγαπᾷ γὰρ τὸ ἔθνος ἡμῶν καὶ τὴν συναγωγὴν αὐτὸς ᾠκοδόμησεν ἡμῖν. ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἐπορεύετο σὺν αὐτοῖς. ἤδη δὲ αὐτοῦ οὐ μακρὰν ἀπέχοντος ἀπὸ τῆς οἰκίας ἔπεμψεν φίλους ὁ ἑκατοντάρχης λέγων αὐτῷ· κύριε, μὴ σκύλλου, οὐ γὰρ ἱκανός εἰμι ἵνα ὑπὸ τὴν στέγην μου εἰσέλθῃς· διὸ οὐδὲ ἐμαυτὸν ἠξίωσα πρὸς σὲ ἐλθεῖν· ἀλλ’ εἰπὲ λόγῳ, καὶ ἰαθήτω ὁ παῖς μου. καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ ἄνθρωπός εἰμι ὑπὸ ἐξουσίαν τασσόμενος ἔχων ὑπ’ ἐμαυτὸν στρατιώτας, καὶ λέγω τούτῳ· πορεύθητι, καὶ πορεύεται, καὶ ἄλλῳ· ἔρχου, καὶ ἔρχεται, καὶ τῷ δούλῳ μου· ποίησον τοῦτο, καὶ ποιεῖ. ἀκούσας δὲ ταῦτα ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐθαύμασεν αὐτὸν καὶ στραφεὶς τῷ ἀκολουθοῦντι αὐτῷ ὄχλῳ εἶπεν· λέγω ὑμῖν, οὐδὲ ἐν τῷ Ἰσραὴλ τοσαύτην πίστιν εὗρον. Καὶ ὑποστρέψαντες εἰς τὸν οἶκον οἱ πεμφθέντες εὗρον τὸν δοῦλον ὑγιαίνοντα.

“After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.”

Here we find a centurion, not an Israelite, a foreigner, who recognizes that Jesus is under the authority of God, whose will is in accord with the will of God, and so he seeks to accord his own will with Jesus’ will, and thus with God’s will. Jesus has a fully developed nature, and so can develop the nature of others, in this case the centurion, whose nature develops toward faithfulness in response. Meanwhile, Jesus is able to “assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth” by healing the centurion’s servant. Furthermore, Jesus’ remarks on the faithfulness of the centurion, indicating that the centurion himself is more in accord with the will of God than any he has met in Israel. It is the centurion, and not the Israelites, who is moving toward forming a trinity, toward being divinized into the divine life. The centurion has chosen partnership with God through partnership and trust – that is through faithfulness – in Jesus.

What might it look like to form ourselves into a trinity with heaven and earth, into a partnership with the divine will and pattern offered for our divinization? Well, perhaps on this Memorial Day weekend it might look something like the President of the United States of America traveling to Hiroshima, Japan and declaring:

“Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.

Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds, to cure disease and understand the cosmos, but those same discoveries can be turned into ever more efficient killing machines…

The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.”

Such a moral revolution cannot be divorced from divine will, from the pattern established by heaven and earth. As Dr. King reminds us, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” So too must we bend if we are to accord ourselves with the arc and participate in divine life. To be sure, we have among us those who would lead us who think heaven and earth should bend toward them. This is not the path of faithfulness leading to divinization, of forming a trinity with heaven and earth.

Rather, faithfulness means responsibly attending to our obligations in life in light of the full range of realities of our present moment and attending to the common good for the sake of our commonwealth. Faithfulness means socially responsible investing so that our livelihood is not at the expense of our neighbor, of future generations, and of the planet. Faithfulness means stepping up and stepping in, of saying something and doing something, when the inherent worth and dignity of any person is disparaged, denied, or denigrated. Faithfulness means establishing and nurturing common ground with the immigrant, the religious other, the disabled, the poor, the mentally ill, and anyone else our first inclination might be to avoid or ignore. Faithfulness looks a lot like the Gloucester Police Department reaching out and connecting drug addicts with treatment rather than shuttling them off to prison: responsibility AND justice.

Notably, faithfulness is not about belief. It is the confidence and trust of the centurion, not what the centurion believes, right or wrong, that are signs of his faithfulness, of his desire to accord his will with the will of God. Faithfulness is not believed, it is not known, it is not understood. Faithfulness is done. Faithfulness is practiced. Faithfulness is carried out. Faithfulness is action. Is this works righteousness? No! The whole point is that faithfulness is activity in partnership with God, and it is this partnership that makes us participants and partakers in the divine life.

In a moment we will sing a setting of Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, a hymn declaring our intent to accord ourselves with the will of God, with the pattern and principle of heaven and earth. Celtic Christians had a profound sense of the presence of God, of their own participation as partakers in the divine life, of divinization, of deification, of theosis, of forming a trinity with heaven and earth. As we sing, may we reclaim the promise of salvation that we too might partake in divinity and form a trinity with God. Amen.

–Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC†

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Blessed Trinity

Sunday, May 22nd, 2016

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John 16:12-15

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Triune God

For this Sunday our lessons evoke a Triune God, God in three persons, blessed Trinity.   I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers.  We have peace through our Lord Jesus Christ.  The Spirit of truth will guide you into all truth.  

My friend attended another, here unnamed, divinity school, which at the time was blown about by many if not every wind of doctrine, so much so that my friend, with a bit of whimsy and humor,  described their theology thus:  ‘God in seven persons, blessed heptopoly’.

Here, today, we shall limit ourselves to three, the three persons of the traditional Godhead.  Psalm 8 evokes God as Creator.  Romans 5 evokes God as Redeemer.  John 16 evokes God as Sustainer.  Father, Son, Spirit.   These are choice, endlessly lovely passages, any one of which, and any verse from any one of which should deserve 22 minutes of preaching attention and acclamation.  Memorize them.

The Christian doctrine of Trinity is of course a deeply mysterious matter, out of reach of most of us most of the time.  How can God be, both one and three?   Faith we must guess involves more than math.  Not less than math, but more than math.  If nothing else, about the Trinity, we remember this:  God is relational, on this teaching.  At the heart of the divine there is relationship, of First to Second to Third to Second to First.  This is what the early church found in Jesus:  the God to whom Jesus prayed, the God who guided and inspired Jesus, and the God in Jesus.  This is what the early church found in the Scripture:  Psalm 8, Romans 5, John 16.  This is what the early church found in Life:  the rush of creativity, the joy of love, the breath of spirit.  In our Gospel today, the Scripture goes even further, in a way giving privilege, at least here, to Spirit that guides into truth.  Once the creation has emerged; once redemption has been offered; then it is a matter of spirit, Spirit, wind, breath, gusting Spirit of God.

We preach and pray at the crossroads of faith and culture.  This is true for every congregation, pulpit and place, but especially and keenly so right now at Marsh Chapel.  In a new, perhaps conflicted way, across the country, we may be listening this summer for words of grace, out of our holy scripture, out of our traditions, out of our sacred history, and wondering, hoping, perhaps doubting but still hoping, that these as preached may help us make some sense of what is becoming of us, as a people and as a country, in our time.

We desire a faith amenable to culture, and a culture amenable to faith.  For what good is a baptized cleansing if we are simply thrown back into the mire? Personal and social holiness are married to one another.  Loving faith expects loving culture.

For all the attention we—rightly—give to politics and economics, it is really the cultural realities that have most impact on individual lives, over time.   When an 8 year old bursts through the back door, crying, saying that her school friend, from Mexico, we will be deported, hers is a culturally inflicted wound; when an 87 year old woman, in a nursing home, rues the collapse of her life long party, and surveys its demise and damages with the word ‘dismaying’, hers is a cultural assessment; when a candidate, given to insulting his competitors, and branding them with epithets, reflects on defeating one by calling him ‘low energy’ and, months later, in reflection,  saying, ‘that was a one day kill’ and then adding, ‘words are beautiful things’ (as my Dad said, ‘its one thing to be tough, but its another to be mean’), we suffer a cultural decline; when a great Christian denomination lacks spiritual leaders, general superintendents, who could simply say, ‘gay people are people’, and then keep silent (only one active UMC Bishop in the Northeast, Peggy Johnson, did so this week), this is a cultural measurement;  when only 24% of 17-24 year olds are eligible to seek admission into armed forces (the other 76% ineligible due to obesity, lack of a high school diploma, drug use, criminal record, failure of physical exam or other), here we trace cultural influence;  when forms of worship, meant for enchantment, give way over two generations to a pseudo-worship aimed at entertainment, with direct connections to features of Reality TV, professional wrestling, and beauty contests—the same social expressions now driving some political selection and debate–we face a cultural deficit; in short, when a culture, like ours,  has a mirror held up to it, as has happened this calendar year, and the image is more appalling than appealing, then some among us may begin to return to, revert to, a reconsideration of our more ancient repositories of wisdom:  scripture, history, thought, and scrutinized experience.  In an age of broad cultural malaise, some may seek more steadily the reassurance, peace, insight, and resolve to be found in moments of truth, goodness, beauty—and ordered worship. Those in the pulpits across this country have our work cut out for us in 2016.   How shall we invoke and evoke faith fit for culture and culture fit for faith?  How will we address incivility in a civil way?  How do we oppose demagoguery with democracy?  How do we contrast buffoonery with beauty?  How does one supplant cultural disorder with liturgical order?  How do we combat fear with faith?  We have our cultural work cut out for us this year.

Thank goodness we are not alone!  Blessed Trinity blesses us, especially as Trinity leans to Spirit.

There is a self-correcting Spirit of Truth loose in the Universe, leading us.   Next week we shall begin hearing, along with Luke, from Galatians, chapter by chapter, speaking of spirit and truth, speaking of relationship, speaking of the new creation.  The Trinity leans toward Galatians, on this Trinity Sunday.  Here is your preparation for the Holy Scripture of the next month, your shake down cruise for the trip to Galatia, your introduction to Paul, Freedom, Spirit and New Creation, and the Magna Charta of Christian freedom.  Such beautiful verses:  I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefor and do not be enslaved again.  The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, gentleness, self-discipline.  Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. Here is the story behind the Epistle lessons you will hear through June.

New Creation

Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians is one of the great high peaks of the New Testament.  It is about a whole new life, a new creation.  In fact, it may be the highest peak in the whole range, the Mount Everest of the Bible.  It is written to address this question:  “Must a Gentile become a Jew before he can become a Christian?”.  Is there a religious condition to be met, prior to the reception of God’s apocalypse in Christ?  

After Paul had been converted to Christ, he spent 17 years in unremarkable, quiet ministry.  We know nothing of these two decades spent in Arabia.  All the letters we have of Paul come from a later decade.  Paul was converted to Christ, as he says earlier in this letter, “by apocalypse”.  Christ revealed himself to Paul.  Thus, for Paul, the authority in Christ, is not finally in the Scripture, nor in traditions, nor in reason, nor in experience.  Christ captured Paul through none of these, but rather through revelation, the apocalypse of God.   In short, Paul was not a Methodist.

There is a singular, awesome freedom in the way Paul understands Christ.  We have yet, I believe, in the church that bears His name, to acknowledge in full that freedom.

After these 17 years, Paul went up to Jerusalem to meet with the pillars of the church.  Can you picture the moment?  All in one room:  Paul, Peter, Andrew, James, John, Titus, Barnabas.  And in that room there was argument, difference.  Paul preached the cross of Christ to unreligious people, and they heard.  What would the Jerusalem elders say?  Jesus was a Jew, and had been circumcised.  So also were all the first Christians, including Paul himself.  But God had done something astounding.  It was the Gentiles, not the Jews, who fervently believed the Good News. Should these unreligious children of God be brought back into the Covenant of Circumcision?  No, they all agreed, no.  God had done something new.  So, Peter went to the circumcised, and Paul went to the uncircumcised.  Peter went to the Jews, and Paul to the Gentiles.  They agreed to disagree, agreeably.  And the meeting ended and it was settled.

But you know how sometimes it’s not the meeting but the meeting after the meeting that counts?  What was settled in Jerusalem was unsettled later.  Peter couldn’t be counted on to hold the line, and Paul told him so, to his face.  Peter was inconsistent about freedom—sometimes he ate with the unclean Gentiles—that’s all of you by the way.  Sometimes, when somebody was watching, he backed away.  And Paul caught him at it and as he ways, “opposed him to his face”.  I wish all opposition in church was so clean, direct, personal, and honest.  “One of us is wrong and I think it’s you!”  Paul doesn’t talk about Peter, he talks to Peter.  There’s a life lesson.  Said Paul:  ‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither Slave nor Free, there is no Male or Female’.  Not religion, not wealth, not gender—no, all these give way before Spirit.

In the resurrection, in Christ, in faith, in the new creation, there is no gender.  At least, according to Paul in Galatians.  In Christ, there is no ‘male and female’. Gender is swallowed up in victory.  The Oneidas and the Shakers could sense this, odd and contrasted as were their ways of living it out.

We have yet, I doubt, to take seriously the Good News of liberation found in these passages.   Your identity does not come from your sexuality, your gender, your orientation.  

In this passage, in the Bible, Paul points to a clue, as well, to one of our great arguments today.  Here, your identity is not to be inferred from creation….but from new creation!  This apocalyptic baptismal formula declares the erasure—who says there is nothing radical about Christ?—of the distinction we so heighten, that between male and female.  

So, my teacher, J L Martyn:  “In Rom 1: 18-32, Paul uses an argument explicitly based on creation, drawing certain conclusions from the “things God has made” in “the creation of the cosmos” (Rom 1:20). In effect, Paul says in this passage that God’s identity and the true sexual identity of human beings as male and female can both be inferred from creation.

“What a different argument lies before us in Gal 3:26-29, 6:14-15! Here the basis is explicitly not creation, but rather the new creation in which the building blocks of the old creation are declared to be non-existent. If one were to recall the affirmation ‘It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen 2:18), one would also remember that the creational response to loneliness is married fidelity between man and woman (Gen 2:24, Mark 10:6-7). But in its announcement of the new creation, the apocalyptic baptismal formula declares the erasure of the distinction between male and female. Now the answer to loneliness is not only marriage, but rather the new-creational community that God is calling into being in Christ, the church marked by mutual love, as it is led by the Spirit of Christ (Gal 3:28). The result of such a radical vision and of its radical argumentation is the new- creational view of the people of God…It is Christ and the community of those incorporated into him who lie beyond religious distinctions…Baptism is a participation both in Christ’s death and in his life; for genuine, eschatological life commences when one is taken into the community of the new creation, in which unity in God’s Christ has replaced religious-ethnic differentiation. In a word, religious and ethnic differentiations and that which underlies them—the Law— are identified in effect as the “old things” that have now “passed away”, giving place to the new creation (2 Cor 5:17).” (Martyn, in passim, Anchor Bible Commentary:  Galatians).

God is calling into existence a new community of faith working through love.  There is your identity.  Not what is natural but what is heavenly about us forms our primary identity.  That is, the Bible itself, from the vantage point of this great mountain passage, opens the way for an understanding of identity that is not just nature or creation, but new creation.  This is the community of faith working through love.  Here, there is a place where God may be doing something new, revealing something new.  And, most strangely, it may be those who are not so easily confined by the creational categories of male and female, those who are both or neither, who are on the edge of the new creation.  I know what Paul writes in Romans, but you still must ask yourself, at this point, which is Mount Everest:  Galatians 3 or Romans 1?  I think it is Galatians 3.  I have come to believe that gender and orientation do not provide our primal identity.  No male and female means no gay and straight, no homosexual and heterosexual.  God is doing something new, which includes all in the community of faith working through love.

We worship on Trinity Sunday.  The Triune God summons us to relationship and complexity and courage to seek the truth.  The Spirit of God leads us into all truth:  Come Trinity Sunday we recall that there is, by God’s triune grace, a self-correcting spirit of Truth loose in the universe. The trajectory of Paul’s preaching in Galatians, and thus in total, makes ample space in our churches for gay people.  If you love Jesus, and especially if you love the Bible, then you may just find courage not only to defend a moral life in a post-moral culture, but also to preserve freedom for those who have found a whole new life, and so are very harbingers of the new creation.

God in three persons, blessed Trinity.   I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers.  We have peace through our Lord Jesus Christ.  The Spirit of truth will guide you into all truth.

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

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Boston University Baccalaureate

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

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This year’s Baccalaureate speaker is Carrie Hessler-Radelet, Director of the Peace Corps.

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