The This I Believe speakers from 2014 were Charlotte Saul, Jenny Hardy, Robert Lucchesi and Brian Sirman.
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We believe in God
Who has created and is creating
Who has come in the true person, Jesus, to reconcile and make new
Who works in us and others by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
God calls us to be the church, the Body of Christ.
To celebrate Christ’s presence
To love and serve others
To proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen
Our Judge and our Hope
In life, in death, in life beyond death
God is with us
We are not alone
Thanks be to God
Karen Daly spoke at Sargent College last week. She is a courageous nurse. In the ER one afternoon she was accidently stuck by an infected needle, contracting Hepatitis C and Aids, some twenty years ago. She spent many years then successfully combating these diseases, both in her own body and also in the halls of congress. This Sargent lecture each year is one of the very best moments available at BU for pastoral preparation. It is theological without being theological. She told her story. After living with the realization that she was infected for some days, in a kind of stupor, she received a phone call from her new doctor. Somehow he found her, though she was thousands of miles away. He said: “I am your new physician. You are going to be fine”. She said for the first time she began to feel human again. Weeks later the doctor gave her his home phone number. He said, “If you cannot sleep at night and are worried, don’t worry alone. You call me. We will talk”. She said that for the first time she began to think she might get better. Salvus is the latin word for health. Salvation is healing. Healing comes through words and through fellowship, preaching and sacrament.
Our gospel summarizes resurrection to preaching and communion. Not to try to boil us down to grandchildren of Rudolph Bultmann, but this long narrative depicts Jesus Risen as the telling of the good news and the sharing of the bread and cup. The difference resurrection makes is the possibility of preaching and the availability of sacrament, both means of grace.
I remember an Anglican cleric, whose journalist interrogator asked about the precipitous numerical demise of the Church of England. “What will happen when there are almost no members left and all the buildings are sold?” he was asked. “Well, I guess then we will find a Bible, a table, a cup, a plate, some bread, some wine, and we will start over”.
What happens in Luke 24, as you have just heard, is what happens at Marsh Chapel on Sunday morning. People on a journey gather. The Scripture is read, and more importantly, interpreted in preaching. The table is set and the meal is served.
That’s it, folks.
Not much to go on, you might and rightly say. A simple meal and some fairly simple words.
This morning we gather up in prayer the experiences of four years: the learning, the growth, the change, the gladness, the adventure, the losses, the tragedy, the trauma, the friendships, the successes, the mistakes, the loves, the heartaches, the happiness, and lift them all in a spirit of grace and peace.
This morning we embrace the young graduates of 2014, as they commence with the rest of life, in a world ever a stage, with men and women merely players, in a lifetime taking many parts: infant, schoolchild, lover, soldier, judge, retiree, convalescent, and we lift them all in a spirit of grace and peace.
This morning we open ourselves to the world around us, to all its great gifts and all its crying needs, mindful of other young people who in this hour lack raiment, lack shelter, lack nourishment, lack health, lack freedom, and pledge ourselves to live not only in this world but also, and more so, for this world, in a spirit of grace and peace.
Our prayer: four years, one class, our world.
As the grace for our meal I invite you to join with me in a prayer written by John Wesley.
Wesley was the founder of Methodism, the religious tradition that gave birth to Boston University in 1839.
His breakfast prayer exemplifies that tradition:
The words are simple: that is significant
The language is universal: that is significant
The tone is thankful: that is significant
The phrasing is memorable: that is significant
It is a prayer fit for use in a call and response manner, as we shall this morning: that too is significant:
Gracious Giver of all good
Thee we thank for rest and food
Grant that all we do or say
May in thy service be, this day
Flanner O’Connor: “I would like to be intelligently holy.”
DJHall: ‘ours is a religion that must share spiritual nurture of the world with many other faith traditions…
Paul Theroux, advice to writers: “1. Leave Home. 2. Go Alone. 3. Stay on the Ground… “
Dag Hammarskjold: ‘God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal Deity, but we die on the day our lives cease to be illumined by a radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder whose source lies beyond all reason.’
St.Chrysostom: “A just, useful and suitable intercession…The poor are necessary for the spiritual well-being of the rich…Your brother is more truly God’s temple than any church building…Show a natural compassion…To make you humane for your own salvation…Enjoy luxury in moderation, give the rest away…God: Scripture, Sacraments, Poor…Those who are sent out to be dependent upon the hospitality of others: the apostolic ministry…’Ministry is mendicant’…The sign of the mendicant church calls forth generosity…Serve the poor under all conditions and circumstances…The poor are the bearers of God’s spirit in the way that the rich are not…All goodness in the world is a reflection of God’s grace…”
I recall two friends, recently deceased: Jim Burchett (69); Bill Hardoby (62). My pastoral ministry to Jim, a corporate leader, and to Bill, a psychiatrist, is finished. Whatever it is, it is over. Did they receive grace? Were their souls healed, saved. ‘If anyone is damned, Jesus has failed…I can tell you how the world works. But we still have to decide what it means…The world is absurd, but faith is an act of faith.’ (R Cooper). Did they live? Did they live before they died? Did they know love? Were they loved? Did they love? As they died, did they have care: personal, physical, pastoral? Did they die in fear or trust? Were they practically ready? Did they have a will, funeral plans, a burial plot, finished conversations? (OOPS). Did they die in fellowship with God? Did they die in friendship with God and others? What regrets did they harbor, what unshared hurts, what secret sermons, what despair, what deferred desire? What models for dying, for a good death, did they have? Did they die in belief, believing in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting? In their last months, or days, when they wanted to talk, was there anyone there?
These two men worked hard, played by the rules, achieved and succeeded. They took big responsibilities for their long marriages, gifted children, extended families, communities of fellowship and meaning, and to some degree, their environment, legacy, and world. They were men. Good men. They ‘did their duty’. Were they happy? At peace? Centered? Satisfied? Contrite? Humble?
Did my friendship and pastoral care provide the right space, depth, meaning, hearing, word, example to ‘bring them home’?
For Jim, the church was central. For Bill, the church was peripheral. For both, the church was meaningful.
Said Thomas, ‘My Lord and my God’. Our faith, expressed in the creed, says much the same
1. I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth
A light angelic voice, a crisp little line. The ancients said only what they needed to, here. God made the world. God set the conditions for the world to be. God created. Heaven—things invisible. Earth—things visible. There is no attempt to explain the fallen darkness of the world, here. There is no avoidance of the absolute mystery, here. There is a just an abrupt statement: God created.
2. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried…
A clear voice, narrative and personal. Jesus is our guide, our measure, our Lord above all Lords. His life is the line of God in the sand of time. Sent with the love that only a Dad can know and give to a Son known and loved. Conceived with the joy of passion in spirit. Born of the best of women, like every birth an absolute miracle itself, a smoking cradle. Who suffered, and suffered in a social political matrix, under the thumb of the ruler of the age—suffering particular, local, individual and unappreciated. Who died an ignominious death, stretched out as a common criminal among others common and criminal.
…The third day he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father, from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
A trumpet angelic voice, sonorous and somber and serene. Heaven is His. He is ours. What else shall we take with us? Who else could we ever expect to judge us? Easter is the victory of the invisible heaven or the visible earth. There is a judgment for life and for death and for the living and for the dead. And Love has the last word.
3. I believe in the Holy Spirit: the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
A sweet voice. Placing you at the global table. Feeding you with the fellowship of greatness. Steadying you with mercy, mercy, mercy. (If you take no other clue from Easter, take along an inclination to forgive). The capacity for renewal of the church, and so by extension of your spirit, soul and body. The confidence that life outlasts death within the mystery with which we began.
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God”
We tend to want rather instant results. Rapid feedback, metrically based, positive and solid—these are the sorts of outcomes we prize. It is altogether fitting and proper that we do and desire so.
But in a larger sense?
Ministry in particular and life in general require a long view. The planting of seeds. The lighting of candles. The casting of empty nets. The waiting, and waiting and waiting. It is a long wait to live by faith, hoping against hope, and trusting the invisible to vanquish the visible. Easter is the announcement of the victory of the invisible.
Thomas, poor Thomas, remembered for his very human desire for the visible, the tangible, the metrically based, positive and solid, verifiable knowing—picks up the monicker, Doubting Thomas.
Thomas. Logos. Nicodemus. Samaritan Woman. Lazarus. Paraclete. BELOVED DISCIPLE. Thomas. Where did all these figures come from? Not one every seen or heard in the rest of the New Testament, particularly not in the other gospels. Whence?
The strange world of the Bible is at its strangest in the Fourth Gospel.
But Thomas is not just the doubter. Thomas, alone, Thomas, more than any other, Thomas, of the silk road, Thomas of the so named Gospel, Thomas of our reading today, Thomas alone perfectly summarizes the whole of John, saying of the crucified and risen One: ‘My Lord, and My God’. Thomas is not just the doubter. Thomas is the true believer, too. The Son of Man is both Earthly Lord and Heavenly God.
So we have some reason to wait, some basis for the long view, some heartfelt humility as we move forward through the ages.
To live in faith is to build schools in which you will not study, though your grandchildren might. To live in faith is to start churches in which you will not pray, though your grandchildren might. To live in faith is to plant trees under which you will never take a siesta, though your grandchildren might.
Herman Melville worked in a government office most of his life, having written the greatest of novels, Moby Dick, whose popular appreciation came well after Melville’s death.
Ludwig von Beethoven composed his Ninth Symphony, without the capacity to hear it, to hear its beauty, its power, its wonder.
Daniel Marsh moved this University out to the banks of the Charles river, and constructed buildings, including this very Chapel, later named for him, but did not live long enough, though he lived a very long life, to see just how much Boston University would change and grow.
Alistair Macleod, eulogized this week as an author, ‘not in a hurry’, who left behind one novel and one ample collection of stories, all set in Cape Breton, will never fully know how meaningful his beautiful prose has been to so many of us.
Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his magnum opus, gathering together over time material older and newer, and giving us one the greatest artistic, musical works of all time, perhaps the very greatest, a portion of which we shall hear together in a moment. Bach never heard the B Minor Mass in lifetime. Bach never lived to hear the greatest of his works performed.
Dr. Jarrett, what Bach did not hear, we shall. At the conclusion of this year’s tour de force, this year’s celebration of Bach, here and there, in NYC and in Boston, and by radio and internet the world over, what are we about to hear?
We come this morning to the fulfillment of a year-long survey and study of Bach’s greatest work – the Mass in B Minor. Many would even argue the B Minor Mass is humanity’s greatest work! In this final section of the B Minor Mass, we hear Bach’s Sanctus, Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and the famous Dona Nobis Pacem. We hear some of Bach’s earliest music, the Sanctus written his first year in Leipzig in 1723, more than 20 years before it found final resting place in the B Minor Mass. Mirroring Isaiah’s six-winged Seraphim, Bach scores for 6voices, the only such instance in his entire output of vocal writing. Caste as a grand and bold exultation at the throne of the Almighty, we have truly entered a musical Holy of Holies. The Osanna that follows surpasses the Sanctus in texture, expanding six voices to eight in double chorus, exclaiming their Creator’s Praise in joyful dancelike shouts of Osanna. From the largest complement of voices, Bach next scores for his most intimate in the entirety of the Mass with the Benedictus. Only three members of the orchestra accompany the lone tenor voice. The delicacy of the flute line and the tenderly sung tenor, bring us to the humility of the Savior, entering Jerusalem on the donkey, the meek and mild manger, and ultimate humility of the cross.
The Agnus Dei brings us another intimate moment of austere devotion. We are fixed and transformed by Christ on the tree, the emblem of suffering and shame.
In the fall we knelt together in supplication for the Kyrie, a moment of corporate pardon and affirmation of grace. In December we rejoiced in the nave of Bach’s Mass with that great hymn Gloria in Excelsis Deo. IN February, we affirmed our faith at the crossing of word and table with Bach’s Nicene Crede. Today, Bach invites us to the High Altar, transformed by the Holy of Holies. Emboldened and renewed, we take up the cross, sent forth into the world in an eternal quest for God’s peace – Dona nobis pacem, pacem, dona nobis.
With your help, and that of the choir, and especially that of Bach, we have learned some things.
(From Scott Fogelsong): (The mass) offers music lovers a dear and faithful friend. Like certain other beloved choral works—Handel’s Messiah comes immediately to mind—its grandiose scope never overwhelms the intimate humanity at its core. Thus we cherish it, not only as a masterpiece, but also as a mirror that shows us the saints that lie within.
The entire Mass might be assembled from re-purposed material. We may never know for sure.
Bach never heard a performance of the completed B Minor Mass. “The greatest work of music of all ages and all peoples” (Nageli).
What part of the symphony of your life, or mine, will be played, enjoyed, celebrated only after you are not able to hear it? What gift of inquiry that causes an inspiration to vocation? What gift of wealth that endows in perpetuity some form of the good, the true, the beautiful? What gift of progeny that continues a genetic and biological trajectory in life? What gift of institutional, institutionalized improvement that makes this world a better place? What song of yours will others be singing when you are long gone?
Marilyn Robinson traces the emergence of her faith, in part, to a long ago Sunday morning: “One Easter I went with my grandfather to a small Presbyterian church in northern Idaho where I heard a sermon on the discrepancies in the gospel accounts of the resurrection…I was a young child… yet I remember that sermon…I can imagine myself that primal Easter, restive at my grandfather’s elbow, pushing my nickels and dimes of collection money into the tips of my gloves…memorably forbidden to remove my hat…It seems to me I felt God as a presence before I had a name for him…I was aware to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention all around me…and I thought everyone else must also be aware of it…Only in church did I hear experience like mine acknowledged, in all those strange narratives, read and expounded…(227)…Amen (the preacher) said, having blessed my life with a lovely thing to ponder.”
Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God”
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music
Yellow and Blue
It has been a long week. It has been a long old time religion winter. It has been a long year.
On April 15 I jogged in the morning, down along the river. A cold day. A sad day. A mournful day. A blue day, with the slight budding wind of a yellow dawn in early spring. By the Hatch Shell someone had beautifully placed a dozen boxes, along the path and along the river. In each flower box there were dozens of flowers, of only two types and colors. Daffodils. Yellow. Violets. Blue. Daffodils and violets, yellow and blue. In Boston, on Easter, this year of our Lord, 2014, we are right in those flower boxes. One part violet, on part daffodil, one part yellow, one part blue, on part singing the hymns of Easter, one part howling with the laments of loss.
In the last year, we have been a city drenched in sorrow.
Our good words about resilience, rightly spoken, as our honest reaction this year to neighborhood terrorism, do not displace our sorrow. The best of days, the highest of moments, the most charmingly gracious of cityscapes, the culmination of the American experiment in PatriotsDay-MarathonDay-SpringHoliday-BostonDay—all trashed a year ago by senseless, needless, heedless, injurious, intentional, hateful, killing violence. When another takes what you hold dear, count precious, think lovely, and rapes it, you cannot avoid anger, and the sorrow at the heart of anger. Now the angel of hurt has come near, here. Some of the sensitive in listener land wonder whether anything religiously cast, any preachment, can carry any truth, any good. We have become closely acquainted again with sin.
Sin is utterly personal. This we understand. The covenantal commands of the decalogue have a personal consequence (Exodus 20). For we confess, too a personal dimension to the apocalyptic sway of sin. The angels in heaven—and perhaps a few others—may “need no repentance”. As grace touches ground in Jesus Christ, sin touches sand in personal confessions. We get lost. It is our nature, east of eden. We get lost in sex without love: lust. We get lost in consumption without nourishment: gluttony. We get lost in accumulation without investment: avarice. We get lost in rest without weariness, in happiness without struggle: sloth. We get lost in righteousness without restraint: anger. We get lost in desire without ration or respect: envy. And most regularly, we get lost in integrity without humility: pride. If you have never known lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy or pride you are not a sinner, you are outside the cloud of sin, and you need no repentance. (You also may not be quite human). But if so, hear good news: the Easter gospel is for you!
Today is Easter. Sursum Corda!
The Lord is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!
Early in the morning, before dawn, two women—Matthew has no place for men at the tomb, except guards so fearful they are like dead—come on a religious errand to the sepulchre. They approach quietly, on tiptoe, for the air is quiet before the storm. They listen and watch…
And behold!…There is an earthquake and an Angel, a messenger of the Lord who descends from heaven, rolls the stone away—notice this—sits upon the stone. Like lightening and snow is he—like the lightening of Labor Day and like the snow of March 6 is he. We know about lightening and even more about snow. Dazzling white, fearsome power.
Why an angel? Why all the drama? Why such an appearance? Why the stone as a stool? Why the title, angel of the Lord?
An angel is a messenger. The drama means to get your attention. He sits—to teach. Remember Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount—“he sat down and taught them”. In antiquity, a teacher sat to teach. His sitting is for our instruction. And he sits—where? On the stone of death. There it is, at Easter: an angel of the Lord, sitting to teach, atop the symbol of death. Death is a part of life. In Jesus Christ, death has lost its sting. Behold I tell you a mystery… Kata staupon…Crux sola…Que es la vida…Le Couer a sais…
Let us suspend our disbelief for a few minutes, and listen and learn from the voice of an angel, sent to teach us. For we trust—that life has meaning, that worship deepens meaning, that Scripture carries meaning, and that preaching applies meaning to our very hearts for our eternal health and wellbeing.
The Angel says, “Fear Not….”
I am a Christian because I see in Jesus Christ that God has tasted all that I will ever taste—all the way to death. Am I weary? So was he. Am I alone? So was he. Am I downcast? So was he. Am I betrayed? So was he. Am I rejected? So was he. Am I to die? So did he. Where I go, he has been. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps 34:18). He has become like us, that we might become like him. As Paul says, “he was put to death for our trespasses, and raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25)
Be not afraid! In the hour post-mortem, we learn: Fear not.
You may be fixing breakfast, either a theist in doubt or an a-theist doubting your doubt.
You may have given first aid and first response last Marathon Monday, and now are in worship finding a way toward peace.
You may have sat in your car, last Tuesday at 2:49pm, silent, weeping, and carefully mentioning by name: Lu Lingzi, Martin Richards, Krystle Campbell, and Sean Collier.
You may have realized, as a young adult, as young adults do, walking the Esplanade yesterday, that you are not as self-aware, self-critical, self-disciplined as you should be, by now.
You may be new to your job, a responsible one at that, involving the safety of many others, rising to meet the day, and praying for an incident free tomorrow.
You may be a preacher giving his 35th Easter sermon, wondering what the judgment of them all will be.
You may be remembering a loved one who has died, and grieving that loss still, as the music subsides.
You may have been healed this winter, a long time healing in a long cold winter, warmed by the sunshine of Easter weekend.
You may be in the choir, glad for the beauty and conviviality and community of church and worship, but also convinced that none of it will last if based on shaky philosophical foundations, and you are right to be so convinced.
You may be in the balcony, ready to hear, by inspiration and grace, a saving word, a healing word, an intervening word, an angel voice.
You may remember that you have been radically accepted, as Paul Tillich would say, that you have this acceptance by the work of Christ, as Karl Barth would say, and that you have this through no good work at all of your own, as John Calvin would say. So share your faith!, John Wesley would say.
The Angel says, “He is not Here…”
Jesus’ absence is at the heart of Easter. The Gospel helps us see his absence, then and now.
Very few people are ever argued into faith, or out of faith. Persuasion does the former, sometimes. Tragedy does the latter, sometimes.
All of the Matthean touches are metaphorical: the wild earthquake, the stone miraculously moved, the guards made soporific, the clothing as bright as sunshine, the shining as white snow (the snow part is the part we get easily).
So too is the Angel Voice.
You and I do not hear such voices, normally at least.
In 1977 I sat as a seminarian with an elderly Presbyterian minister and a young first year student. The student said: “God spoke to me and said…God’s voice rang in my ears…God shouted at me…God whispered to me…The minister, aged and bespectacled and white haired and hard of hearing, said: “I have been in ministry for 50 years. God has never, no not once, not ever spoken to me.” Well, after 35 years, I am with him. God has not ever spoken to me. Angel Voice is a figure of speaking, metaphorical not literal. For Matthew. For that Presbyterian minister. For me. For you. For you all. It is a sign, a symbol, a metaphor. BUT IT HAS POWERFUL MEANING NONETHELESS.
Angel voice reverberates, resounds, rolls, undulates, crashes, sings, calls, shouts—‘He is not here’.
Like the ocean rolling at night, ebb and flow, tide and surf, wave and beach, the ocean rolling at night, a natural Angel Voice. We sense behind the phenomena, the numinous. Howard Thurman: ‘the ocean and the night…’ Angel voice beckons you from the shoreline of the world, roaring with the wild beauty of the untamed universe.
Like the still, small voice of your conscience. You have in your heart, in your mind, in your soul, in your self a kind of inner voice, which in its own way rolls in and out like a wave on the ocean. Or, it is like the ‘ping’ in a message box, echoing, lost, ringing from the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Angel voice. ‘Not sure you really want to do that…’ ‘Not sure you really should have said that…’ Not sure you really do think that…’ You could help her… You could encourage him…You could think about that another way. Angel voice beckons you from that inner voice, the singing solo of your own-most self.
Like the heart felt longing, feeling, careening, caring of love. You can feel the love of those who lost limbs or senses or loved ones last year. You really reach out in love to them, and to others in hurt, tragedy, need. The Bible says: no one has ever seen God. The Bible says: if we love one another, God’s love abides in us. The Bible says: God is Love. The Bible says: Love is God.
At age 8 or so, from our little village in farm country, I had never traveled to a MLB game. But once a summer in Cooperstown the two worst MLB teams played an exhibition. I do not remember the second team. But you know, in the early 60’s, who the first team was: the Mets. My dad and his clergy friend Bruce took me. Bruce was the first Boston voice I remember: a BU graduate, a Sox fan, pork and beans and Saturday evening, he did not drop his r’s. Those two Methodist preachers had very little spare money or time, but they found a way to give a happy day to a boy who would not leave early, even though the Mets were down by at least 20 runs (J). On the way home, in the evening, though I had been warned not to do so, I lifted my new cap out the window into the breeze: off it went, in the wind, across the road, down the embankment, and into the Cherry Valley Creek (where in 1910 my grandmother had been baptized.) “It’s not fa’ down. Yo fatha and I can get it.” Every loving word, deed, act, prayer, every one has a lasting influence, lasting fifty years and more. Is it any wonder, so raised, but such, that I went into their ministry, served churches along the Cherry Valley, preached as a Methodist itinerant, and ended up, where they started out, here in Boston?
‘He is not here’. Angel voice in creation and in conscience and in compassion tells us so.
The Angel says, “He Has Risen”
Easter is a mystery, a resurrection mystery. The old creed can display its meaning for what we believe.
In God, Maker of heaven and earth. God creates the world, known to us in all its brute fallenness, its sin and death and threat of meaninglessness. This is the all the creed says about the world, life, creation. Here it is, all things visible—earth—and invisible—heaven, created from nothing by God.
In the Son of God, Jesus, in life
Conceived in the joyful explosive passionate spirited love of all conception
Born as in all birth of a woman whose self giving in delivery is utterly virginal
Suffering as all do under structured oppression, from Pilate to Putin and beyond
Crucified, dead buried, shuffling off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns
Raised from the dead, sitting on the right hand of God to judge the living and dead, all visible and invisible, a sound, solid but utterly incomprehensible mystery by which death is swallowed up in victory.
In the very Spirit of God
Which we taste in the global church
Which we enjoy in the fellowship and goodness of friendship
Which we hold for dear life, like those capsized at sea, in the saving life preserver of forgiveness
Which we trust for the renewal of the church, the body so resurrected daily
Which we leap into at last, at death, trusting that life everlasting is the last word.
We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed, always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
Salvation is about space, about openness! “In my father’s house there are many rooms..” “The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting…” “As far as the east is from the west, so far does God remove our transgression…” We used to sing: “Give me land, lots of land, ‘neath the starry skies above—don’t fence me in! Salvation is about space.
Jesus goes to Galilee—the place of difference, of the unreligious. Go quickly and tell his disciples…
The angel voice speaks to you:
Whether you are 80 or 50 or 20
Whether your mode is sincerity or authenticity or irony
Whether your favorite film is Casablanca or Easy Rider or Ferris Buehler
Whether the day that lives in infamy is December 7 or November 22 or September 11
Whether bridge means River Quai or Chappaquidick or Nowhere
Whether your trumpeter is Armstrong or Jarrett or Marsalis
Whether that poster is of Marilyn Monroe or Raquel Welch or Madonna
Whether you fought anti Semitism or racism or homophobia
Whether your best baseball card is of Ted Williams or Karl Yastremski or Big Papi
Whether your medium is radio or television or the internent
Whether you read Ernest Hemingway or Lionel Trilling or David Foster Wallace
Whether you shout Airborne! or Right On! or Whatever!
Whether your default mode is sincerity or authenticity or irony
Whether you are 80 or 50 or 20
Angel voice speaks still…
Dag Hammarskjold: ‘God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal Deity, but we die on the day our lives cease to be illumined by a radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder whose source lies beyond all reason.’
My friend is a member or the American College of Cardiology. They have instituted a new conclusion to all of their continuing education units, which he, rightly, thinks should also conclude every worship service. In short, the doctors are asked before they leave: “How will what you have learned at this conference change the way your practice? What will you do differently than you did before?
He adds: I long to hear this coda, or something like it, in every sermon, every Sunday: ‘Friends and fellow disciples of the living Christ, what will you now do differently as a result of your participation here this morning? What deeds of the body will you begin today to put to death by the Spirit, and what fruits of the Spirit will you now cultivate, harvest and distribute? What life giving, life sustaining, life affirming practices and habits will you today begin to establish. Make them specific, personal, demanding, actionable, measurable. What will be your actions and metrics? Please join us! (Dr. Larry Gage, Rochester, NY).
Through it all rings the Resurrection Hope, and an angel voice:
He is not here
He has risen
Whether you are enchanted by sincerity, or enchanted by authenticity or enchanted by irony—whether you are 80 or 50 or 20—Angel Voice speaks for and to you.
Big steps are better than small steps. Small steps are better than no steps. No steps are better than backward steps.
‘Screw your courage to the sticking place, and we will not fail.’ (Macbeth)
‘And go to church on Sunday.’ (Billy Graham).
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
Each year Dean Hill focuses the Lenten preparation for Easter by considering the special insights brought by some important Christian author. This year it has been John Calvin. Several weeks ago I had the special privilege of preaching the Sunday morning service at Marsh and drew attention to Calvin’s claxon insistence on the transcendent glory and beauty of God. Although Calvin began his Institutes with the claim that any consideration of God immediately reflects on the wretched human condition, and any consideration of the human condition directs the light back to the unmeasurable perfection of God, for him the real point of religion is God, not the human condition. Martin Luther, the other great Reformer of Western Christianity, said in effect that it’s all about human beings, their salvation, and how God brings about that salvation. For Calvin, religion is all about God who, incidentally, brings about salvation. People concerned for their own salvation and the renovation of the world in justice find Calvin austere. They take little comfort in his claim that from God’s point of view the whole creation is beautiful and that God’s justice is glorified as much in the punishment of the damned as in the heavenly welcome of the saved. Calvin is rarely associated with feel-good religion. But Calvin was indeed concerned with the human condition and in fact wrote far more about how we ought to behave within the divine economy than he did about God per se. So I feel obliged tonight to preach the Word through Calvin’s warm and fuzzy side. Only a Methodist would attempt such a thing. And if you are thinking that this means a very short sermon, think again.
The Easter Vigil is an appropriate occasion to seek God through Calvin’s understanding of the human condition. It is a time between the crucifixion, which symbolizes the worst in the human condition at its most depraved, and the Easter resurrection, which symbolizes the best that can happen. Officially after sundown on Saturday we are in Easter day as the Jews reckon the beginning of days, and we all know about the discovery of the empty tomb and the encounters with the Risen Christ that are coming in the morning’s symbolism of our liturgical year. But this service is still a vigil, a waiting for what has not yet arrived, albeit promised. The side of Calvin that is so genuinely empathic with the human condition, the side that has drawn people to him despite his abrasive austerity, is his recognition that life every day is like the Easter Vigil. The catastrophic judgment of Good Friday is past and the fulfillment of Easter resurrection is only promised. This is the condition in which we actually live. We can pretend that we in fact
live face to face with God dying for our salvation as symbolized by Calvary. But that is not in our personal experience. It happened in the past and perhaps it has been misinterpreted. If we are honest we worry. We can pretend that we actually live fully resurrected Easter lives, that our souls are purified and that our institutions guarantee justice and flourishing for all. But of course that is simply mistaken. Theologians protect their hinder parts by saying that we now live in anticipation of the fulfilled resurrection triggered by God’s saving act in the crucifixion, an “already but not yet” resurrection. This is called “proleptic consummation,” a great phrase to remember for cocktail parties.
Dean Hill tomorrow, I wager, will talk about signs and manifestations of resurrection. “Christ is Risen!” we will sing. But what about us? How are we risen? Tomorrow we will know deep down that it is still only promises. Easter morning is still only promises, just like the Easter Vigil tonight, and any honest heart knows this. Every day is still the Vigil. When we face up to this with an honest mind, and look carefully to see who we really are and what our world really is, we have cause to worry in this Vigil. Only preachers who are realistic about the vigil-character of Christian life offer honest comfort. This is the warm and fuzzy part of Calvin because he is with us in what we know in our hearts to be true. His honesty is the beginning of true comfort. Let me call this “deep” warmth and fuzziness.
Calvin’s own theology is quaint, offensive to our usual understanding of Christian kindness, and out of date because his mythic understanding of the world is premodern. But permit me to sketch the logic of his theory of the human condition. He began with St. Paul’s claims about law and grace in the fifth chapter of Romans, the chapter just before our Epistle tonight. Paul drew the language of law from the Jewish Torah and Calvin drew it to extremes from his own background as a lawyer. What they both meant, phrased more generally, is that the created world has moral standards, whether expressed as laws, or better and worse policies, or better and worse choices, or ways of life. No matter how hard we try, we come short of perfection as measured by those standards. Calvin was a Renaissance humanist and knew as well as anyone that there are great human accomplishments and that some people are better than others. But from God’s point of view, according to Calvin, any moral imperfection is a failure to meet the standards and thus is sin: we are depraved. “Depravity” is a good Calvinist word for the ineluctable tendency to sin. That we are moral failures was as empirically obvious to Calvin as it is to us. Why we think perversely and behave badly is in part because of bad intentions and choices, but why we make bad choices despite our best will to the contrary is a deeper problem. Calvin’s mythic understanding blamed it on the original sin of Adam from which we inherit an irresistible tendency to sin. Our own mythic understanding more likely looks to deep psychic contradictions, incompletely suppressed infantile urges, bad upbringing, neurologically damaged impulse control, economic deprivation, dysfunctional families, and wicked social structures. From a compassionate human point of view we readily make allowances for our behavior. “Sarah surely is a selfish person, but look where she came from; and she is not half as selfish as her brother.” But for Calvin, the human point of view is not the relevant one. It’s God’s point of view that counts and part of God’s perfection is perfect justice. If a person fails to meet the moral standard the person deserves to be punished in Calvin’s juridical imagination. We all fail, and thus we all deserve to be punished. Because no one is perfectly justified, everyone must be condemned according to God’s justice. In Calvin’s mythic world, God is anthropomorphized to be a judge as depicted in the great paintings of the Last Judgment and people are mythically conceived to have a natural afterlife that must embody their just reward, Heaven or Hell. Because everyone is guilty, everyone belongs in Hell, according to Calvin (and Luther, Aquinas, Augustine, and Paul).
This mythic understanding of God as an anthropomorphic judge, and of human life as naturally immortal with a destiny for Heaven or Hell, has lost its hold on most of us. I don’t anthropomorphize God at all nor do I think about a natural or supernatural afterlife. But I do know that in ultimate perspective I and maybe everyone else fail our moral standards and thus are ultimately guilty, however proximately worthy we are. I don’t need to imagine an anthropomorphic divine judge in order to know what the ultimate judgment ought to be. I don’t need to imagine a Heaven or Hell to know that we are in a broken relationship with God as the ultimate Creator and that this broken relationship is ultimately the most important thing about us. And I don’t need a belief in an historical Adam causing all his children ultimate grief to know that however much we might improve our relationship with God, we still cannot make it perfect. What is your mythic understanding of all this? I suspect most of you have mythic visions somewhere between Calvin’s and mine. Calvin’s point was that, however you mythologize your broken relation to what is ultimate—a danger of frying forever in Hell or being ultimately estranged, if we take life seriously we are in ultimate trouble. Most non-Calvinist Christians find ways of saying it is ok not to take life seriously. Calvin was serious.
Now, the Christian Gospel is that God is not only perfectly just but also merciful. Although everyone deserves to be damned to eternal punishment, however that is imagined, God sent Jesus Christ his Son to take the punishment for us. Therefore, although we deserve to be condemned, in fact we are reconciled to God by Jesus Christ. Notice the strict logic here: God’s justice condemns us all and God does not have to save anyone; but God does save us, at least some of us, and this is pure merciful grace on top of justice. This is the sense in which Christians from Paul to Luther and Calvin understood the meaning of salvation: by the Law we are condemned but by Grace in the sacrifice of Jesus we are saved.
What happens, for Calvin, when we recognize God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ? Do we become perfect? No, not at all. We do not need to become perfect because God saves the already condemned. Instead we just need to get better. Recognizing that we are saved by God in Christ, sin loses its hold on us and we can work at improving our lives. For Calvin this meant building more loving communities and more loving relationships. In his time, this was a directly political task and he set up a theocratic state in Geneva. To determine how to be more loving he set up laws of thought and behavior, and more laws. The state-church appointed elders as officials to administer pastoral care, which consisted in finding sinners and correcting their behavior. This passion for enforcing love is what seems so terrible to us today, an invasion of privacy, an authoritarian dictatorship, all in the name of helping the graciously saved to improve.
Looking around, Calvin saw a lot of people that simply didn’t seem to be working at becoming more moral and loving. Some of them rejected the whole idea that they were naturally damned or that Jesus Christ makes them righteous in God’s system of justice. Many nations never heard of Jesus Christ. So it seemed to him that only some people are saved by God’s grace, manifests God’s freedom. That God’s mercy saves some does not mean that God’s mercy has to save all. There are passages in the Bible that talk about God’s elect and Calvin concluded that God elects some for salvation and leaves the rest to the damnation everyone deserves. From the human point of view this seems terribly unfair and the great Calvinist Karl Barth said that, although God does not have to elect everyone, he does. For Calvin, what counts is God’s point of view and God’s justice is fulfilled as much in the punishment of the non-elect as in the salvation of the elect. This famous Calvinist conclusion is repugnant to most modern mythic sensibilities and is a good reason to flee from his theological anthropomorphism, which actually is inconsistent with his other emphasis on God’s transcendent beauty and immeasurable perfection.
The consequence for Calvinists of Calvin’s conclusion about selective election is to raise the horrifying question, am I among the elect? I try hard to do better, but still sin, as Calvin said even the elect would. But then what is the difference between me as elect and me as a continuing reprobate? The answer has been to work harder. Take life seriously and work on being more loving. Work, work, examine your conscience, work more. Somehow working to be more loving became associated with working to be richer, but I’ll leave Dean Hill to deal with that.
Suppose we reject Calvin’s mythic world of an anthropomorphic God saving some and damning others to Hell. Suppose instead we ask whether we are estranged from God and also somehow reconciled. How can we tell whether we are reconciled? What are the empirical marks of being reconciled with our ultimate Creator? Methodists look to experiences of emotional assurance; the theologian Paul Tillich says to look to ecstatic experiences. But can we be sure? Need we be sure?
Tonight’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans, that comes after the Law and Grace chapter, says that as Christians we already have died with Christ in our baptism and have risen with him to new spiritual life. Paul was talking about the Romans as they were then, not about an afterlife, although he also expected some consummatory afterlife. The quality of being a Christian is to die to the bondage of sin and to rise with all the powers of God that might flow through us like rivers of grace to live well and better in the world. Forget about whether you are elect and instead live with the bounties of grace that abound around us. Don’t worry about others who might not be elect. Point out to them the graces that abound. Get up and do better, as Calvin said. Forget about the salvation problem and just live abundantly. This is the deeper message of Calvin, the deep warmth and fuzziness.
Back at the Easter Vigil, through which we watch every day, what is the gospel of promise? According to Matthew, the women who discovered the risen Christ were filled with fear and great joy, which is what we should feel tonight and live with always. The women at the tomb did not know what to expect, and neither do we. But they had seen the reversal of death in this life and so were filled with great joy. What did they fear? Calvin is associated with the fear aspect of faith. But contrary to what many people think, he did not say that we should fear that we might not be saved. Rather he said that we should fear that we do not take all this seriously. It is possible to go through life inattentive to what is ultimate. It is possible to construe Easter as just good times and no worry. What Calvin tells us is that we must keep close attention to the ongoing affairs of our lives, ready always to make an advance in love and to build a better community, because this is the way to pay attention to God. The beauty of God is to be found in the details of life, however horrific and exhausting they might be. Calvin and many Calvinists used outrageous and even cruel means to call our attention to the duties of this life, including threats of hellfire and brimstone. But we are beyond that mythic worldview. Calvin’s point was that concerns for some final salvific fulfillment are misplaced: we cannot know it, or do anything about it, and the concerns only illustrates the folly of living life from the selfish human point of view. Forget about the fulfillment of mythic promises because they only tempt our self-centeredness. Live rather in the Easter Vigil mode, baptized in Jesus’s death to whatever would hold us back and raised in Jesus’s new life to live filled with God in our attention to the everyday. Life in the Vigil mode fears inattention to the seriousness of the fact that God is in everything we do and enjoy. Life in the Vigil mode is also filled with great joy, celebrating not our victory but the fact that God is to be enjoyed in every detail. The warm and fuzzy Calvin comforts us only when we crucify both the quest for salvation and the hope for victory in worldly terms, and discover the depths of our daily lives that are adazzle with the gratuitous and astonishing glory of God. The Easter Vigil lets us know that life is charged with God in its details, in its responsibilities and simple pleasures. In the worst of sufferings, in the most humiliating failures, in the shortness and long-term vanities of life, what counts is the ever-present beauty of our Creator, which is the only warm and fuzzy comfort worth preaching.
~Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville
A Meditation on the Palms
Seeing With the Heart: Meditations from Marsh Chapel, 2010
The Dean: If we believe that life has meaning and purpose
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe that the Giver of Life loves us
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe that divine love lasts
People: And we doThe Dean: If we believe that justice, mercy, and humility endure
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe that God so loved the world to give God’s only Son
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe that Jesus is the transcript in time of God in eternity
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe that all God’s children are precious in God’s sight
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe grace and forgiveness are the heart of the universe
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe that God has loved us personally
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe in God
People: And we do
The Dean: Then we shall trust God over the valley of the shadow of death
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust that love is stronger than death
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust the mysterious promise of resurrection
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust the faith of Christ, relying on faith alone
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust the enduring worth of personality
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust that just deeds, merciful words are never vain
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust the Giver of Life to give eternal life
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust the source of love to love eternally
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust that we rest protected in God’s embrace
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust in God
People: And we shall.
A Meditation on the Passion Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill
Deliver Us From Evil, 2005
The Dean: To the question of evil let us live our answer by choosing the cruciform path of faith.
People: Let us meet evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity.The Dean: Let us carry ourselves in belief.
People: Let us affirm the faith of Christ which empowers to withstand what we cannot understand.
The Dean: Let us remember that it is not the passion of Christ that defines the Person of Christ, but the Person that defines the passion.
People: Let us remember that it is not suffering that bears meaning, but a sense of meaning that bears up under suffering.
The Dean: Let us remember that it is not the cross that carries the love but the love that carries the cross.
People: Let us remember that it is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses even the tragedy of crucifixion.
The Dean: Let us remember and that it is not the long sentence of Holy week, with all its phrases, dependent clauses and semi‐colons that completes the gospel, but it is the punctuation to come in seven days, the last mark of the week to come in 168 hours, whether it be the exclamation point of Peter, the full stop period of Paul or the question mark of Mary—Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around. The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross. The cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life that has the last word and there is a God to whom we may pray, in the assurance of being heard: “Deliver us from evil”
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
Intro Prayer: Please Pray with me: Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight. Amen.
It is good to be here with you all on this sunny spring morning. I send gratitude to Dean Hill for inviting me to speak this morning at this historic pulpit and many thanks to all of My Marsh Chapel friends and family who have supported me in my new role as the Chaplain for International students here at Boston University.
My husband, Carson, and I moved to Boston in the middle of June with just enough time to be completely enveloped into the Red Sox fandom as they marched towards the world series-which was truly a joy and a blessing and felt like a right of passage into Boston life. However, this means that this past winter has been our first Boston winter. In some ways nearly 5 months of winter, 54 inches of snow, and endless salt foot prints in our front hallway seemed like a rite of passage into becoming a true Bostonian. But many days, especially nearing February and March, I felt as though the winter was never going to end. I felt as though this must be a winter akin to Narnia-endless snows until some sort of curse is lifted; or perhaps Boston was experiencing a 5-year long Game of Thrones style winter. The phrase ‘winter is coming’ was transformed to ‘winter is here-and with a vengeance’.
I began to feel hopeless. When I came into work on especially chilly days, I would ask my colleagues at Marsh when it would all end. I asked practical questions: how long winter lasted year, when does the snow turn to rain, what happened the year before and the year before, what is the absolute worse-case scenario I need to emotionally prepare myself for? (could there possibly be snow in JUNE?). They were sympathetic and offered me much comfort but my colleagues and friends also assured me that-to this day- there is absolutely no accurate prediction method for New England weather. I yearned for spring as I have never yearned for spring before. I would sit in my favorite chair by the window and read John Keat’s poem “Ode to a Nightingale” and hold onto his phrase ‘oh, for a beaker full of the warm south’. I wondered after all this winter, how could anything possible grow ever again? How could even the strongest seed take root in such frozen soil and live?
Our text for this Sunday is a familiar one-Ezekiel 37:1-14. We have seen this vision many times before-Ezekiel stands amidst a desolate valley of dry bones and prophesies them to life. . This story has become an important part of our religious narrative for centuries. It’s a passage that holds liturgical importance for both Christians and Jews alike. In the Christian tradition-this passage is featured every year of the 3 year rotation of the Revised Common Lectionary-we use that lectionary here in Marsh Chapel, as do many other Christian churches around the world. The story of the Valley of Dry Bones falls on liturgically important Sundays in this lectionary: This year it falls on the fifth Sunday of Lent, next year it will be the text for the Easter vigil, and the following year it will fall on the Sunday of Pentecost. In the Jewish tradition, Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones falls on Passover every year. This passage is familiar because we come to it every year as winter beckons into spring. This passage is familiar because each year we are called to it to find new understanding as winter comes to an end.
Before we explore Ezekiel’s prophetic vision, we need to look at the current state of being for the Israelites for whom the vision was originally shared. The Israelites were a broken people suffering from what felt like an eternal winter in their lives. To paint you a picture-6 years before this vision comes to them, the people of Israel had been captured, killed, and enslaved by evil king. Jerusalem, there holy city has been sacked, burned, and invaded. Enslaved and starving, these people feel as though they have broken covenant with God, and will suffer to the end of their days. There homeland, there family, and there lives lay in ruins. John Calvin, our companion through this Lenten season, states that to the Israelites-dispersion, being carried off to Babylon ‘was very much like death’. We see in this passage in Ezekiel 37:11 a most sorrowful cry, a true lament. The people cry out,
“Our bones are dried up,
and our hope is lost.
We are cut off completely.”
In this lament, the people of Israel are not asking for help, they are not asking for God’s forgiveness; they have no request for a sliver of grace-they simply, mournfully accept their dreary existence and commit to the fact they are already dead. Hopelessness seeps in from the very roots of their souls and evolves into life-less-ness. The very notion of life collapses around them. The people of Israel walk on as skeletons without a joy or a song in their hearts. They are in Ezekiel’s desolate valley; they are the dry bones. When in a vision from God, Ezekiel is brought to view this valley of dry bones, it is not an abandoned cemetery, or an elephant graveyard, or a battlefield he sees, but the dry bones themselves are the people of Israel.
We have all experienced these valleys of desperation, these seemingly endless winters. In the United States we live in a culture supports a system where living and life are two completely different things. For instance, we often say ‘we make a living’ as we talk about money; and comment ‘I need to get a life’ as we talk about social interactions. Living becomes something we simply do; are even obligated to do-and life becomes just one possible, probably unlikely outcome of that living. I myself have fallen into a negative cyclical rotation of living what was not life-and I see so many of my friends and family struggle with the same habitual system: we get up, go to work, come home, watch TV, go to bed, get up, go to work, come home, watch TV and go to bed. Once in a while a moment occurs where we question whether or not this is really life at all.
Linked to this system, there is a glorification of busy-ness that runs rampant in our midst. Every time someone asks “how are you doing?” we feel the need to reply ‘exhausted. Busy. Stressed. I’ve done so much today. I have so much to do.’ We feel that if we don’t appear busy, we think we don’t appear to be valuable, successful, or whole. We think that if we aren’t busy all the time, we aren’t contributing members to society. And while these things may be true-we may have a very busy schedule in all reality and have a lot of things on are to-do lists, but we chug along without really experiencing anything, without really living out life. We exist, we work until we are dry bones, we burn out, and we fall into Ezekiel’s valley-where all seems hopeless, it feels like you can never escape from this tedious cycle, and your life has somehow slipped away from you into rote actions and movement created solely out of habit. Sometimes we don’t notice our own shallow valleys, we just keep swimming and feel that everything will be fine someday. Other times we sink into the dry earth of the valley so deeply that the desolation seeps into our spirits and is transformed into deep depression, unhappiness, non-contentment, or listlessness.
I meet with Boston University students every single day of my week, and consistently-at least once a week-I meet with a student who feels so overwhelmed-so incapacitated by busyness and stress at all the things on their to-do list, that they can hardly move; let alone live. I meet with International students who feel like they are just barely treading water to keep up with all the cultural differences, nuances, and systems that they need to embrace to simply keep up with their school work. I see colleagues, friends, and family member who feel plagued in a listless cycle of confounding stress. I’ve found myself in these dark valleys of lifeless living and contention. If you have every found yourself in this valley, you are not alone in this. If you have every found yourself standing amidst these dry bones, know that you are not alone. Thousands of years ago the Israelites found themselves in this dark and dreary place, in the same way we often find ourselves there now. Elie Wiesel, a well-known holocaust survivor, prolific writer, and good friend of Boston University once said about this valley of dry bones-state of being “Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dried bones bears no true date because every generation needs to hear in its own time that this valley exists and that these bones can live again”. Every generation, every culture, every person experiences this valley, this winter. But Wiesel especially notes-that every culture, every generation, every person can live again into a spirit-filled spring.
Dr. Kathryn Pfisterer Darr, a beloved professor of Hebrew Bible at our very own Boston University school of Theology, and one of the leading Ezekiel scholars of our era states that the great hope of this text is that true, fulfilling life is only one breath away. A single breath. But the difficulty of realizing this hope is that we are so often limited by our own understanding of what our lives can hold, can handle, can truly live out-that our own limitations prevent us from embracing the reality of life-the opportunities we have to live. But God’s understanding, God’s sight and vision are so much greater and wider than we could possibly see. I’m reminded of a tale I once heard while I was living and studying in Tamil Nadu, India. I met a man from the island of Sri Lanka named Jude. One day we began talking about this passage in Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones-we were discussing the limitations of human understanding verses the limitations of God’s vision in the passage. Jude told me this native tale,
“Once many years ago, there were two twins living in a womb. A boy and a girl, who were almost fully-grown. They enjoyed their life, filled with nutrients food, and comfort in the womb. But at times it seemed redundant, dull, and there was no more growing to do. One day, the girl twin said to the boy, “I feel as though there must be more than this. I feel as though there might be something called a mother.” The twin boy retorted “that’s ridiculous-this is all we have. We can see our whole world from here there is no mother. There is nothing else.” A few days later the twin girl spoke again, “I really am starting to believe that something is holding us, caring for us, that we are inside a great mother.” The twin boy replied, “there cannot be a mother, we have lived like this our whole lives-there is nothing else.” But the baby twin girl remained convinced and held onto the belief that something was beyond her limits of understanding, and the mother understood things she could not. Little did they know that at any moment these two twins could be born, into a completely new and different world and would be transformed by it. God shares this same wider understanding with Ezekiel and the entire populace of Israel becomes reborn and transformed in new understanding.
Ezekiel stands before a valley filled with dry bones and God asks, ‘can these bones live?’; wisely, Ezekiel affirms that God’s understanding is wider and bigger than his own and says “only you know, O God.” With that, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to these bones to make them live. As Ezekiel does this, bones are joined with bones, sinews re-grow, flesh clings and thrives-miraculously these bodies are re-membered. In his prolific Institutes, John Calvin states that this vision corrects the unbelief of the people-previously the people of Israel, much like us, believed that they were too far out of God’s reach. Too far gone. The importance of Ezekiel 37 to Calvin is to prove that this is always and forever an incorrect assumption, that we are indeed never beyond the reach of God’s restoration. God is more extensive than they could possibly imagine. They are made whole, the people of Israel are restored to fully human form-not just a slave, or a lost soul, or a skeleton, but fully flesh. God breathes into these people of the valley and they are given breath, spirit, true life. The Hebrew term for breath here is ruac’h-a familiar word meaning breath that we have witnessed many times before. We saw God breathing life into Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:7, much in the same way we see God breathing that same breath of life here in the Israel people after years and years of exile and torment. God is still breathing today into us and beckoning us into the Country Called Life.
This year I have been undertaking a spiritual discipline of reading poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke every morning. Rilke is a prolific German and Dutch poet whose insights I find to be just as poignant and personal now as they were a hundred years ago when he wrote them. Rilke and I have been on a journey together this year, and I feel as though he is teaching me more fully how to live, and especially how to live in the presence of the Sacred. His poem “Go to the Limits of Your Longing” aptly brings forward the hope restored in Ezekiel. The poem reads:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
Then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
Go to the limits of your longing,
Flare up like flame
And make big shadows I can move in
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going.
No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the Country called life..
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
We are often called out beyond our recall-called to do more than we can handle. We are beyond our recall when we fill our lives with busy-ness and meaningless motions. At times it seems all we can do is to just keep going. But we are called by the Divine Sacred spirit of God to go to the limits of our longings, to experience every single thing: beauty and terror. When we choose to live we embody the compassion, peace, justice, and spirit of the holy. We can flare up like flames and dance in the fire of life.
Friends, just as surely as today is a spring day-55 degrees and sunny, so your life is only a single breath away, your life is one moment with God’s imbibing spirit away. You are offered the same restoration of the Israelites-the chance to live-to truly live; to step out of the monotonous motions and into a season of spring full of life, full of the spirit of God. Through our endless Boston winter, seeds still have taken root; they are growing and living despite the frozen earth. We have been in the valley of dry bones; we have lingered there, suffered there, but nearby is the country called life. When we breathe, may we breathe the breath of God and we move into life. May we go forth into this spring seeking out life in the fullness of the spirit. Amen.
Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, University Chaplain for International Students
‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and soul, and mind’
Almost a full year ago, many of you gathered in our home for breakfast on Marathon Monday. You came with clothing fit both for sun and cold, sol y sombra. You received a recitation of the Gettysburg Address, the reading of a Longfellow poem, and sang together a couple of familiar, patriotic hymns. You sang well, by the way. You prayed over a simple breakfast and enjoyed eggs, bacon, juice, toast and coffee. In order to see the race completed, you walked a block over to Kenmore Square, and basked in the sunlight of Patriots’ Day, the thrill of the Boston Marathon, and the convivial consanguinity of our annual Boston family picnic.
Some then went home. A few were tempted into study. Others of you walked down Commonwealth Avenue, had some lunch, and enjoyed lollygagging along the Commonwealth Mall. Two of you had volunteered to work in the medical tents, healing blisters and skinned knees and heat exhaustion. One couple turned right on Exeter and went over to Boylston, and next to the Fire Department, so important to us this week, a fine Richardson Romanesque building, and rather than going down Boylston, you chose a quieter path, past the hotel and onto Huntington Avenue. Odd, loud sounds, blasts of no identifiable origin, you heard, and then you walked back to Massachusetts Avenue.
By then someone had told you what had happened. Some of you came to the chapel. With the rabbi and others, you opened the doors and gave shelter, blankets, water, facilities, land lines, prayers and hugs to hundreds who were walking back west, without benefit of trolley. The BU police came to take us to BMC, where a BU student lay critically injured. She survived, praise God. But the next day, awake, she asked, ‘where is my friend, where is Lu Lingzi’?
You could see depravity, even total depravity, in bombs that killed a child and our student and others. You could see randomness, election, strange if not unconditional, in the sheer random horror of some hurt and some spared. You could really for once recognize limited atonement—not just every one, not all have been captured by the gospel of Christ, the love of neighbor. You could also observe grace, an irresistible grace, in the two who went to the tent for bandage and stayed for tourniquets, and in so many first responders like them, and in those who ministered from the front steps of Marsh Chapel. From that day, a year ago, you have watched perseverance, a perseverance of the saints, through grief, through trauma, through amputation, through restoration, through renewal.
Yet in our experience, especially our Boston Marathon 2013 experience, the hard realism of Calvin’s TULIP formula was visible—evil, randomness, hatred, yes, but also grace and perseverance. Total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, yes, but also irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints.
Calvin had a friend in Faulkner. In January William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses stood out from others on a bookstore shelf. A sort of novel, it is, as powerful as it is impenetrable: ”they can learn nothing save through suffering, remember nothing save when underlined in blood”.
This Lent we engage as our conversation partner in preaching, the great Geneva Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564). We have found it helpful, in this season, to link our preaching here at Marsh Chapel, an historically Methodist pulpit, with voices from the related but distinct Reformed tradition, which has been so important over 400 years in New England. The Methodist tradition has emphasized human freedom, the Reformed divine freedom. In Lent each year we have brought the two into some interaction, both harmonious and dissonant. It is fitting that we began with Genesis 2. Genesis 1 is a more Anglican chapter, if you will, representing the goodness of creation. 2 and 3 are more Calvinist, if you will, representing the fallen character of creation, known daily to us in sin, death and the threat of meaninglessness. Both traditions, English and French, make space for both creation and fall. But the emphasis is different, one more garden the other more serpent, one more creation the other more fall. (With Calvin we encounter the chief resource for others we have engaged other years—voices like those of Robinson (2013), Ellul (2012), Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin)(2011), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).)
(A friend wrote recently: It seems to me impossible to speak of Calvinism without mentioning the famous/infamous acrostic for the 5 points of Calvinism—TULIP Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints).
With due respect we honor the divine freedom affirmed in Calvin’s TULIP form. More, we honor the divine freedom in his vision of the glory of God, the majesty of God, the beautiful nothingness of God, the indeterminate mystery of God. Yet alongside this divine freedom we place the human freedom given us in the Gospel, given the church, that capacity to define loyalty or as exit or as voice, that wonderful communal living letter of recommendation, that deep thirst for the divine, and tradition that keeps love in mind.
For all our warlike failings, there is still grandeur to the human being, a grandeur personally known in love, and that love modeled after its partner in the divine love, love divine, all loves excelling! (Excelling but not erasing).
A real celebration of the Gospel will depend upon a common hope. T. Something temporal. A heart for the heart of the city—a longing to heal the spiritual culture of the land. U. Something universal. An interreligious setting. L. Something lasting of love in mind. A developed expression of contrition. I. Something imaginative. A keen sense of imagination. P. Some real power. An openness to power and presence.
Love in Mind
Our gospel lesson today, Matthew’s curt summary of the Markan teaching, gives us a way forward, a way to live out such a common hope. Unlike some philosophy and some religion today, the gospel does not separate head from heart, does not separate, mind from faith, does not separate the spiritual and the cerebral. In fact, here, to love with heart and soul means, emphatically to love with the your mind. Do you? Do you have love in mind?
Matthew has shortened the passage from Mark. He has taken out the positive reference to the Jewish interlocutor. He has winnowed the narrative structure of the text. He has emphasized mind. Especially he has removed the kind response Jesus makes in Mark to his questioner: ‘you are not far from the kingdom of God’. What he has added is an introduction that describes a conniving collusion of the Pharisees and Sadducees to ‘test’ Jesus. In Mark Jesus is invited to help, and he does. In Matthew he is put to the test. Love of God. Love of Neighbor. On these two depend all the others. That is, even in the darker condition of the church, perhaps in the fear of the terror of Domitian, reflected in Matthew, the gospel stands. Love means love in mind.
And ‘mind’? Almost every NT use of the mind, is in Paul, as this morning in Romans, a measure of his Greek outlook. There, in Paul, and here, in Matthew, the word refers to the breadth of human intellect, ingenuity, and creativity. But in Matthew there is a prefix, and the word gives a breathing, process, dimension to the root of the noun, which you will recognize, nous. Here: Not so much thought, as thinking. Not so much mind, as minding. Understanding as gerund: “if I am understanding you…” A disposition. A manner of thinking, like ‘after a manner of speaking’. (BGD, loc cit).
Let us live with love in mind.
Boston University under the leadership of President Robert A. Brown and former Mayor Thomas Menino gave last week a day of reflection and instruction about last year’s Marathon bombings in which four people were killed, one a child and one our student, and several hundred were maimed and injured. The immediate crisis response, medical response, security response and civic response, in retrospect, proved to be stellar, superior, and ultimately life saving for many. Some of you in this room were part of that heroic effort, and many more of you, listening from afar this morning, were also a part of that heroic effort.
Love in mind! Use your head for something more than a hat rack! You cannot be both good and stupid!
And be very careful about mindless misinformation:
In the film, Doubt, Father Brendan Flynn, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, told this story:
A woman was gossiping with her friend about a man whom they hardly knew – I know none of you have ever done this. That night, she had a dream: a great hand appeared over her and pointed down on her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The next day she went to confession. She got the old parish priest, Father O’ Rourke, and she told him the whole thing. ‘Is gossiping a sin?’ she asked the old man. ‘Was that God All Mighty’s hand pointing down at me? Should I ask for your absolution? Father, have I done something wrong?’ ‘Yes,’ Father O’ Rourke answered her. ‘Yes, you ignorant, badly-brought-up female. You have blamed false witness on your neighbor. You played fast and loose with his reputation, and you should be heartily ashamed.’ So, the woman said she was sorry, and asked for forgiveness. ‘Not so fast,’ says O’ Rourke. ‘I want you to go home, take a pillow upon your roof, cut it open with a knife, and return here to me.’ So, the woman went home: took a pillow off her bed, a knife from the drawer, went up the fire escape to her roof, and stabbed the pillow. Then she went back to the old parish priest as instructed. ‘Did you cut the pillow with a knife?’ he says. ‘Yes, Father.’ ‘And what were the results?’ ‘Feathers,’ she said. ‘Feathers?’ he repeated. ‘Feathers; everywhere, Father.’ ‘Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out onto the wind,’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it can’t be done. I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over.’ ‘And that,’ said Father O’ Rourke, ‘is gossip!’
And from another rooftop, in Poland in 1982, recently deceased Solidarity leader, and physicist, Zbigniew Romasewski, broadcast for a minutes a day Radio Solidarity, sending worldwide, feathers of freedom: ‘Solidarity is not a name only, it is a value’ (NYT, 3/28/14)
You will need it. You will need your wits about you to navigate the swells and tides of what Christian Smith describes in Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. A generation caught up, to a great degree, in amoral sexuality, steady inebriation, rampant drug use, limitless greed, self celebration and adulation, and an almost complete lack of empathy for the hurts of others. This generation reminds you of their parents.
You will need love in mind. You will need your wits about you to navigate the swells and tides of millennial culture, what Charles Blow calls the ‘self(ie) generation’ (NYT, 3/8/14): unaffiliated with religion, distrustful of politics, heavily indebted, largely unmarried, distrustful of others, digitally native: all in all we seem to be experiencing a wave of liberal minded detachees, a generation in which institutions are subordinate to the individual and social networks are digitally generated rather than interpersonally accrued.
You will need love in mind. Learning that begets virtue and virtue that begets piety. Knowledge that begets action and action that begets being. Love in mind—your thoughts, your understandings, your perspectives.
Geena Davis, BU\CFA 1979, spoke to us Friday. She remembered being told that 1% of theater majors find lifetime work acting, and reflected, how sad for those other 99!
In the New Testament as a whole, the full gospel, another sort of TULIP, inverted if you will, is expressed:
T. In the Gospel, Jesus loves and teaches love.
U. In the Gospel, Jesus recognizes the choices that inevitably make us who we are. Choice is relational and conditional, and makes us inspect what condition our condition is in. These people, and we too, must have not been unconditionally elected. Look at David, whose foibles and faith, together make him the man he was, in conjunction: David and Saul. David and Goliath. David and Jonathan. David and Bathsheba. David and Nathan. David and Solomon.
L. In the Gospel, Jesus gathers everybody, all, all, like a hen with a brood.
I. In the Gospel, Jesus faces, heartsick, the brutal truth, that these people, and we ourselves, can and do resist the invitations of love. They must not have been powerless. Jesus’ grace was resisted, steadily and effectively, to the path of the cross.
P. Here Jesus himself does not persevere, not at least in Jerusalem, or in the spiritual culture of our time, nor does his cause, at least not in this passage. Persecution not perseverance awaits this holy one.
You need love in mind! Deuteronomy had ‘heart and soul and strength’, but the gospels prefer ‘mind’.
John Calvin put it this way: Only the free service of our wills is acceptable to him… in Hebrew the word heart often includes mind…
Augustine: “What are kingdoms without justice but large bands of robbers”.
Coffin: “Be loyal to a truth that is good for all.”
Daedalus: “I go forth to forge in the smith of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”
Norman Maclean: “you can love completely without complete understanding”.
Erazim Kohak: “A life wholly absorbed in need and its satisfaction, be it on the level of conspicuous consumption or of marginal survival, falls short of realizing the innermost human possibility of cherishing beauty, knowing truth, doing the good, worshiping the holy”
A Wilder: ‘life is more volcanic than we thought…art provides human beings with the incentive to go on living…Theopoetic ‘reversing the process of disenchantment…the modern world has lost the sense of the sacred…a more general awareness of the mysterious and unpredictable in life’.
None of April 15 2013 was God’s will. Not the grace and not the depravity, not the perseverance and not the limitation. No, all this was the will of man, for ill and good, not the will of God, the freedom of man, for ill and good, not the freedom of God. God gives freedom but does not dictate its use. Gabriel Vahanian: ‘The will of man is more inscrutable than the will of God.’ Perhaps you are an apophatic, but if so, be an emphatic apophatic. God is mystery, wonder, spirit, presence, and lies beyond all reason.
Dag Hammarskjold: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal Deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason”.
American higher education is the envy of the world.
American higher education has, however, one glaring deficiency: it does not teach its undergraduates how to live. It teaches them when the French Revolution was, what the carbon cycle is, and how to solve for X. It does not teach them what to do when they feel confused, alone, and scared. When they break down after a break-up. When they are so depressed they cannot get out of bed. When they drink themselves into unconsciousness every night. When find themselves living on someone’s couch. When they decide to go off their meds. When they flunk a class or even flunk out of school. When they get fired. When a sibling dies. When they don’t make the team. When they get pregnant. When their divorced parents just won’t stop fighting. When they are too sick to get to the hospital. When they lose their scholarship. When they’ve been arrested for vandalism. When they hate themselves so much that they begin self-mutilating. When they’re thinking about suicide. When they force themselves to throw up after every meal. When they turn to drugs for relief from their pain. When they’ve been assaulted or raped. When their mind is racing and cannot stop. When they wonder about the meaning of it all. When they are terrified by the question “What do I do next?
This world is not going to get better only with the comforting aid of sentiment, feeling, emotion, and things of the heart. It will take a hard headed realism, and a hard minded love to transform this TULIP world. That is where you come in. You have gained admission to a stellar university. Smarty Pants. Good for you, smarty pants. When you write your history of John Wesley, summarize please his teaching in TULIP formula. The future, God’s future, needs your mind: T. Something temporal. A heart for the heart of the city—a longing to heal the spiritual culture of the land. U. Something universal. An interreligious setting. L. Something of lasting love in mind. A developed expression of contrition. I. Something imaginative. A keen sense of imagination. P. Some real power.
From this day forward, will you live with love in mind?
~Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
I thank Dean Hill for the privilege of sharing as a preacher in our Lenten observance. It’s good to be back in this pulpit. Dean Hill wants us to think through Lent with the eyes of John Calvin whose theology is not always in accord with the Wesleyan tradition of Marsh Chapel. Our texts for today illustrate some of the principal issues of Calvin’s theology. God is imagined many ways in the Bible, and Calvin picks up on most of them, from the most anthropomorphic to the most sublime.
Our Exodus text is from the saga of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt to take possession of Canaan, which they viewed centuries later when composing these texts as God’s Promised Land for them. The relation between God and the Israelites was not a happy one, as they told it. God did not consult them concerning their departure from Egypt, and you remember the desperate flight in front of the Egyptian army that God miraculously destroyed at the Sea of Reeds (or Red Sea). This hair-raising escape was enough to make them nervous, especially since they had stolen all the goods they could from the Egyptians, at God’s command (they reported), and now had great herds of animals that needed to be fed and watered. Shortly before the incident in our text, the Israelite company had run out of food and the people angrily asked Moses why he had led them away from the fleshpots of Egypt, that is, the diet of meat and a plenitude of bread, to die of hunger in the wilderness. That’s when God send the manna from heaven, a nourishing special condensation of dew. But traveling on they ran out of water and complained to Moses again. God was royally provoked but stood on the rock which Moses struck with his staff and water poured out, saving the people. This satisfied their literal thirst and that of their flocks. But God was indeed provoked by their lack of faith in his providence and their complaint that they should never have left Egypt in the first place. We know from our responsive reading, the 95th Psalm, that God therefore determined that they would wander in the wilderness for 40 years until all the adults who had complained about thirst would have died. That included Aaron and Moses. Only afterward were the Israelites allowed into Canaan.
The image of God here is plainly primitive. We tend to read the later image of God as love back through these parts of the Hebrew Bible. The practice of giving a “spiritual reconstruction” of the Bible based on the theological principle that God is Love was common in Christianity from the earliest times up to the Reformation. Those stories of God’s pettiness and genocidal ways were construed to be allegorical expressions of something else, something consistent with an orthodox Christian theology of God’s perfect justice, mercy, and benevolence. But this is in fact to be inattentive to what the Bible says. The Reformers, Calvin as well as Luther, said our theology should be based on a careful reading of the Bible, not the other way around where the reading of the Bible is based on a preconceived theology. Read straight, God in Exodus is arbitrary in choosing the Israelites over the Egyptians and Canaanites and is jealous about the Israelites’ loyalty, which was shaky. God is depicted as one deity among others who wanted to prove his superiority to the Egyptians Gods, and later to the Canaanite ones. To prove this God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so as not to let the Israelites go until afterGod had killed all the first-born of the Egyptians. This was genocide of untold numbers of innocents. But it is hardly worse than God killing off nearly all the animals and people on Earth at the time of Noah. Read straight, the God of these stories is a primitive tribal deity whose crimes against the humanity of everyone except the Israelite tribal ingroup are atrocities. He was even tough on the ingroup, as I say, requiring the deaths of all those who complained before letting them enter the Promised Land. Later Jewish and Christian interpreters had to find ways of taking these stories to be not true literally but symbolic of something closer to the God of justice, mercy, and love. There is a story I’ve heard of from the Jewish Talmud, for instance, about the angels and deities in Heaven having a party after the drowning of the Egyptian army and rescue of the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds. But they noticed God standing off the side weeping. “Why are you not rejoicing at the salvation of your people Israel,” they asked him. “I’m weeping for my people Egypt,” God replied.
For all his Biblicism, Calvin did not escape imposing his own consistent Christian theology on the Bible. For instance, he was a super-monotheist whereas much of the Hebrew Bible is polytheistic. Calvin has a lesson for us here, however. Realistically, the world is not balanced and just. Some people are rich and others poor. Some nations are favored, at least for a while, and others are swept aside. Some people move easily into a life of general benevolence with only minor setbacks while others damn themselves again and again despite a heart-felt will not to do so. Calvin’s God is arbitrary, creating a world where some are saved and others are damned. The imbalance in the world must be the result of divine creation, said Calvin, because God is sovereign and somehow everything that happens, even the bad stuff, is the result of the divine will. Perhaps we do not like this and want to attribute a generous loving spirit to God. But then, given the realities of unequal life, God would have to be blind or inept, or not personal at all, or at least not sovereign. Calvin says, do not close your eyes to the shocking inequalities and injustices of the world and assume that God is really behind the scenes trying, without much success, to make it right. Life sometimes runs out of water. When God supplies the water, as at Rephidim, it often comes at a great price: death before the Promised Land. Sometimes God’s water is a deadly flood, as the Egyptians discovered. God is Wild, knew Calvin.
Now Calvin and I are not supposed to be talking this way. We are supposed to deflect attention away from the primitive God to the spiritualization of the metaphor of thirst. We are spiritually thirsty, and God can satisfy this spiritual thirst. This is the background orientation for the text from John’s Gospel. Jesus turns his own human thirst at the well into a spiritual interpretation of the thirst of the others for the water of life. The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman is chock-full of boundary-crossing elements—talking with a Samaritan, talking with a woman, describing her dubious sex life without moral judgment, and offering her the water of life when he had originally only asked her for a drink from the well for himself. I presume you have heard a multitude of sermons based on this text about how we have a spiritual thirst that is far more important than physical thirst. Jump from John 4 to John 6 and you find Jesus claiming to be the bread of Heaven, quenching a spiritual hunger that he contrasted with the mere physical hunger satisfied with manna from Heaven. You all know how to think about the spiritual life in terms of the metaphors of thirst and hunger and you have my permission to rehearse in your mind’s ear what you would say if you get bored with the rest of what I am about to say.
Calvin’s greatest genius was to see that religion is about God more than about us. For Luther, and for most other Christian theologians, religion is mainly about our salvation, including God’s role in it through Jesus. Calvin paid lip service to the salvation problem and wrote many pages about how Jesus is our savior. But the main intentionality of his vision was focused on God. He had the largest conception of God in Western history. For him, God is unmeasurable, glorious beyond imagination, so radiant in beauty that of course God is sovereign. Nothing can compare with God.
So what Calvin would lift up today from the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is Jesus’ shocking dismissal of the tribal and religious differences between the Jews and Samaritans. Forget about whether one should worship in Jerusalem or on the Samaritan mountain. “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.” Jesus does not dismiss cultic differences, and says that the Jews know whom they worshipp whereas the Samaritans do not. But he relativized cultic differences. Real worship is a spiritual matter that should not be limited to cult. Calvin would read John 4 as testifying to the transcendent sovereignty of God. Just glimpse God and you are blown away. Worship in spirit and truth is something that can only be approximated from a cultic base.
Of course, this is unmanageable theophany. It seems we need to domesticate conceptions of God for them to be to useful. Calvin then turned to the Bible for finite things to say about this infinite and sovereign God. He tried to make out a consistent biblical set of affirmations about God and about commandments for human life. Like his symbolically interpreting predecessors he was reading in more than he was reading out. But he assembled a rather detailed special interpretation of what the Bible is supposed to mean that has organized his Reformed tradition ever since. Because we cannot live up to God’s beauty in creation, human beings are utterly depraved, Calvin said; this is not a politically correct position today. Most of us take offense at that part of Calvinism.
Even worse, by subordinating the project of human salvation to the transcendently beautiful glory of God, awkward consequences such as predestination of some to salvation and others to damnation have followed since the Geneva days. In the Synod of Dort at the beginning of the 17th century the Calvinist divines had to decide whether God offers salvation to anyone with free will who takes it up, or whether God determines in advance whether you are saved regardless of what you think you choose. The former group, led by Arminius, was followed by the Methodists who continue to believe in free will. The latter group won out at the council and so Reformed people, that is, Presbyterians, are supposed to believe in total predestination. This put subsequent Calvinists in a panic to discover whether they were predestined for salvation or damnation. For Calvin, all these sometimes awkward consequences were not half as important as acknowledging the sovereign majesty and beauty of God.
This transcendent beautiful sovereignty of the infinite Creator cannot be described in words. Some theologians had said that God is the fullness of reality that is whittled down in finite form to create the world. Calvin said yes, but more, God’s creation cannot be understood as the domestication of divinity. It is the wholly new creation of the world that embodies the divine beauty. Every thing in creation is good, if you could but see it with God’s eye. The swell of the oceans, the transience of the sunrise, the special thisness of each bird chirping in the bush, the vastness of the cosmos, the remote radiant heat of the Big Bang, the supernovas destroying worlds, the flooding of the coastal peoples, the parching of the deserts, the wars for dominance, the numbing poverty of our economic system, the blighted lives of the oppressed, the sick with poor care, the dying on our doorsteps, our own deaths coming anytime—all, all, bespeak the strange beauty of God. What a horrible thing to say, we think! Moral protests abound against Calvin’s vision and Calvinists themselves have been at the forefront of movements to relieve suffering and transform the world to a more nearly just comportment. But in a profound sense, perhaps only glimpsed from the corner of the eye, the Calvinist vision says sit down and shut up. It’s not about you, it’s about God. May I whisper softly, Calvin had it right in the long run?
No one can bear this stark vision of divine glory for long, so think back to the human side, as Calvin suggested at the beginning of his Institutes. For what do we truly hunger and thirst? Forget the metaphor that we are spiritually empty vessels longing to be filled with divine substance. Our ordinary condition is to be spiritually filled with mediocre satisfactions. The ordinary metaphors of thirst for God’s living water can too easily be turned to consumerism: we are needy—so we think of God as the resource to fulfill our needs.
Calvin blows this off. Forget human needs! Look to God’s glory: this will create a need for satisfaction you had never imagined. Look to God’s beauty: you will be drawn with an infinite passion that will strangely show you beauty in life’s smallest details and worst horrors. Look to God’s sovereignty and you will develop a thirst beyond your parchest history, a thirst deeper than any moral plumb line, a thirst that leaps over any water brook for which you had panted, a thirst that forgets your own proximately valid priorities, a thirst that brings us up short to gape without guile at God’s glory in the “thises” of creation. Calvin dares us to look at God through the corner of the eye, through thick filters prepared for eclipses, and to be blown away.
Although Calvin in fact gave all sorts of suggestions about Lent and the moral life, suggestions that have their place, his fundamental message was, forget about it! Ultimately, we are not important enough to worry about. So you need more discipline, ok, get a program. So you need to practice forgiveness, ok, get on with it. So you need to confess, oh, duh, yes, yes, we know you are sorry and will do better next time. Or not. For the glorious God in whom we live, it does not make much difference. Forget yourself. Forget whether you are saved or damned. Forget for the moment the need to fix the world. Instead look to God whose beauty will create in you a thirst of inhuman proportion. God beauties forth in all creation. Beauty elicits the thirst and the more you crave the closer you come to God. Calvin knew God does not satisfy thirst: God increases the craving. The whole creation is God’s living water. The more we smell that water, the thirstier we become for God. Forget satisfying the thirst. Intensify it. God’s immense, transcendent, and immanent beauty calls forth the deepest thirst that unites us to God. So, flee from spiritual satisfaction. It’s not about you. Increase your thirst. It’s about God. Calvin understood something, didn’t he?
The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville
‘Do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation, to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all.’ (2 Cor. 3: 1)
Freedom and Melancholy
In July of 2003 my dear best friend and family doctor drove us to a nearby book sale, an annual event, in a converted barn, along a country road, nearby to–nothing. We go every summer. He is an historian by temperament and some significant private reading, largely English history of the 17th century. We browsed among the mildewed racks of lost tomes, lost to their original readers and lost on a generation growing impatient to reading. For 25 cents one could buy the 1200 pages of Marcel Proust’s The Remembrance of Things Past, volume 1. For eleven years, now, 2014, and now into the second volume, about page 230, this strange, difficult work has provided me some occasional early morning company. You can see that progress has been slow. Some months go by without a page being read. In fact, after some real difficulty with sentences a page long, a whole year went by.
On page 233 of volume 2, Proust pauses mid remembrance to remark that with the onset of real adulthood, with the arrival of the experience of genuine freedom, with the sudden realization that one’s own life is in one’s own hands—an experience not unknown in college life—there comes melancholy. Melancholy, for students for parents for retirees for all, melancholy comes in part from a full feeling, full thought of freedom, of the responsibility, the unique and unrecoverable responsibility of life, of living one’s own life. Melancholy is a whole lot more than homesickness. We sometimes presume that young adult ennui comes from homesickness. Not so. The real root is spiritual melancholy. Though we respect Frederick Beuchner’s astute meditation, years ago, on the resemblance of homesickness to faith, a real rehabilitation for homesickness if ever there was one, what gives one pause in coming of age, at whatever age, is more—it is Proust’s melancholy. Proust’s own voice this morning is carried on that of Marsh Associate Robert Lucchesi:
But by these very words which left it to myself to decide my own happiness, my mother had plunged me in that state of doubt in which I had been plunged long ago when my father, having allowed me to go to PHEDRE and, what was more, to take to writing, I had suddenly felt myself burdened with too great a responsibility, the fear of distressing him, and the melancholy which we feel when we cease to obey orders which, from one day to another, keep the future hidden, and realize that we have at last begun to live in earnest, as a grown up person, the life, the only life, that any of us has at his disposal.
Dear friend. Your melancholy has a good in it. Your avoidance of others, reluctance to engage, willingness to self medicate, endless sleeping, absence from worship, repetition of the verbal sign of the age, ‘whatever’—your melancholy—comes in part from a deep, perhaps pre-conscious awareness of life, of freedom, of responsibility, of the chance and necessity and dangerous challenge of really living. Take heart if you are down. Down is the marrow of up.
Calvin and Nicodemus
At least, that is what Nicodemus found. Melancholy kept Nicodemus up at night, too, and one night he found, or was found by, Spirit.
This Lent we engage as our conversation partner in preaching, the great Geneva Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564). We have found it helpful, in this season, to link our preaching here at Marsh Chapel, an historically Methodist pulpit, with voices from the related but distinct Reformed tradition, which has been so important over 400 years in New England. The Methodist tradition has emphasized human freedom, the Reformed divine freedom. In Lent each year we have brought the two into some interaction, both harmonious and dissonant. It is fitting to hear of Nicodemus at night, this morning, as we consider Calvin, this Lent. (With Calvin we encounter the chief resource for others we have engaged other years—voices like those of Robinson (2013), Ellul (2012), Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin)(2011), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).)
Calvin’s own voice this morning is carried on that of Marsh Associate Robert Lucchesi: Christ mans that the movement and operation of God’s Spirit is no less perceptible in the renewal of (the human being) than the movement of the air in this earthly and outward life, but its mode is hidden. And we, therefore, are ungrateful and (miserly) if we do not adore the incomprehensible power of God in the heavenly life, of which (God) shows us so outstanding an example in this world, and if we asbribe to Him less in restoring the salvation of our souls than in preserving the estate of our bodies: Such is the power and efficacy of the Holy Spirit in the renewed (person). (vol. 4, p, 68, NT Commentaries).
Calvin and Corinthians
Likewise, John Calvin emphasizes, rightly, in 2 Corinthians, Paul’s own stress upon the ‘fragrance’ or the ‘scent’ of the gospel. Of course, Calvin means this both happily for the graced and sadly for the reprobate, both of whom are known in response to the preaching of the good news. His ease in naming the ‘reprobate’ is hard for us, I expect, and makes sense only, and only in part, underneath his overarching celebration of the glory of God, God’s glory, known in all things ordained by God, both gain and loss, found and lost. “The power of the Gospel is so great that it either quickens or kills, not only by its taste, but by its very (fragrance).’ (vol. 10, p. 35).
Calvin carefully follows Paul’s thought: Continuing with the same metaphor, he says that the epistle was written by Christ, because the faith of the Corinthians was His work. He says that it was ministered by himself, likening himself as it were to the ink and the pen. In other words, he makes Christ the author and himself the instrument…(and later) For by the letter he means an external preaching which does not reach the heart, and, by the Spirit, life giving teaching, which is, through the grace of the Spirit, given effective operation in (our) souls. (p. 42)
‘You yourselves are my letter of recommendation’. (2 Cor. 3:1). Such a marvelous, supreme, beautiful commendation to you, hear at Marsh Chapel, to you, listening by radio signals, to you the community of Christ, near and far, old and young, visible and virtual. You are a letter of recommendation!
So the Apostle Paul addresses his beloved Corinthians, and replies to those who seek a more formal epistle of reference. You are… the recommendation.
Letters of recommendation—their solicitation, composition, delivery, reception and perusal—litter the academic landscape. Graciously to request one is a delicate art. Honestly to compose one is a delicate art. Critically to assess one is a delicate art. Over many years, having benefitted from the kindness of others who wrote them, I now, as writer, much more fully appreciate the effort therein invested. Long before cyber files, e files, and electronic mail. Each letter written, typed, enveloped, stamped and sent, over a kindly personal signature! Letters of recommendation. A pause: may those this week composing such receive a personal blessing for a quiet labor, a thankless gift, a generous portion.
We may wonder about recommendation. What do you and I commend, by our living? What does our living, our mode of thinking, our manner of working, our habit of being, what does our living speechlessly recommend. ‘None preaches better than the ant, and he says nothing’ (B Franklin). What happy shadow, what felicitous echo, what alluring existential fragrance do you cast about yourself as you sally forth on the trail of life? So that heads turn. Are you—how are you?—a spiritual head turner? We may wonder about recommendation.
Let us head off one misapprehension. The gospel probes what you recommend, not just what you represent. You represent—this or that. Good. Well and good. But do you truly recommend what you represent? Recommendation is spirit, representation is flesh, a distinction the Apostle most strongly asserts in Galatians 3, and again here in 2 Cor. 3: 1ff. Here in Corinthians, Paul says, ‘you are my letter of recommendation’, not merely of representation. Does your life sparkle, shimmer, quiver, shake, rattle and roll, outflowing in recommendation of what you represent? In living, do you truly recommend what you dutifully represent?
You are a banker. Good. As such you represent savings, thrift, delayed gratification, the long view. You represent what others can bank on, what others can count on. As a banker you represent solid investment. Does your own life recommend solid investment? Do you save? Do waste not, want not? Do you prepare in visible ways for a rainy day? Does your life shine with a soundness, a reliability, a trustworthy confidence, which others credit, and which others bank on, and which others can count on? You are a banker. Good. But are you a banker I can count on? Does your life really recommend what your living represents?
You are a teacher. Good. As such you represent curiosity, inquiry, learning, discipline, the converted and convertible life, as Emerson might have put it. You represent what can be taught and learned. As a teacher you represent the value of learning. Do you? Learn, I mean. Do you learn something new, every day, and thrill to do so? Do you seek out new vistas—another language, another land, another literature, another logarithm? Do you like to learn? If not, what are doing teaching? Does your conversation simmer in new sauces of tasty, salty apprehension? Do you know how to ask questions that travel between the Scylla of banality and the Charibdis of the nonsensical?
You are a professor, an educator, an instructor. Good. You represent learning. But do you recommend it in a life that exudes the happiness of understanding, the thrill of discovery, the contentment of mastery? Are you a decent docent? Does your life really recommend what your living represents?
C.S.Lewis said ‘wake up’. Sigmund Freud said ‘grow up’. Paul of Tarsus said ‘show up’. We ask you today—‘what up?’ What does your life joyfully recommend to others?
You are an American. Looking at you, would and do others long to be one too? You are an athlete. Watching, do others desire to be one too? You are an academic. Living next door to you, do others decide to go after a PhD? You are a political activist. Does your dentist see and do likewise? You are an atheist. Knowing that, do others smile and drop belief?
You are minister. Good. As such you represent good news. GOOD news. You represent the gospel of freedom, grace and love. You are a part of the representative ministry. Congratulations. You represent the unity and continuity of the church through the ages (J Wesley). You represent love divine, all loves excelling. I couldn’t be happier for you and for all you represent. Just one small question. Does your life at all recommend what you ostensibly represent, what your ordination represents? In your living, day by day, as you walk the streets where others live too, as you pass by, is there a hint of freedom in your gait, is there a scent—a fragrance– of grace in your cadence, is there a glimpse of love in your stride? Is freedom something just to talk about on Sunday, or is it something you live out, on Thursday? So too, grace and love. You preach liberty, laughter and love. Good. Do you ever take a vacation? Do you keep your friendships in good repair? Do you give with a happy generosity, a carefree (not careless) abandon? Ministry is ministry with people. Do you spend any time with people? Ministry is with hurting people. Do you spend any time with hurting people? Or is it just another day in front of the computer screen? Does your life really recommend what your living represents? How will others hear the gospel of freedom, grace, and love if they never see ministers of the gospel who exemplify freedom, grace and love?
You are a Christian. I am glad. But. Can others bear witness that you would give them the shirt off your back, go with them a second full mile, offer coat and cloak as well, and love those who make it frightfully hard to love them? Does your life recommend or merely represent Jesus Christ, and him crucified? Do you set out in the morning to love, to live as a love letter, to live out the knowledge and love of God with mercifully spirited existential letters, sent in multiple copies, and laden with grace, prayer and presence?
Is the print legible in the letter of recommendation, which is your (pl.) life? Can people read it, read you, read, and reading, there, read gospel?
At least we may take the intensity and zeal of Walt Whitman going forward. Whitman’s own voice this morning is carried on that of Marsh Associate Robert Lucchesi:
I celebrate myself
This is what you shall do
Love the earth and the sun and the animals
Give alms to every one who asks
Read these leaves in the open air
In every season of every year in your life
Dismiss whatever insults your own soul
And your very flesh shall be a great poem
Well beloved! Lift up your hearts! Let us this season live what we love, behave as we believe, recommend what we reference, be born of the spirit! Hear the good news:
‘Do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation, to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all.’ (2 Cor. 3: 1)
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel