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Spiritual Fulfillment in College

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

Luke 14: 25-35

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Your spiritual fulfillment in these years may come from an honest, full reading of Scripture, an earnest, full exercise of reason, and an ample, full appreciation of tradition.

Scripture

Consider a verse of scripture:  “Whoever does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:33)

You may have occasion to take a quiet walk this week. On the Esplanade.  Down through the Public Garden.  Along the Emerald Necklace.  Out on the beach.  (Your monthly ocean visit, which you promised last Sunday), As you walk, wander, and wonder, as you saunter with a saintly step, along the Commonwealth Mall, say, ponder our Scripture today.

Luke’s collection of sayings here, Luke 14: 25, in the middle of ten chapters or so, Luke 9-19,  that are Luke’s own developed composition, including many of the most memorable teachings of primitive Christianity that are nonetheless not found elsewhere (the Good Samaritan, the Lost Sheep and Coin, the Prodigal Son, and other), are, in all honesty, somewhat inelegantly jumbled together, in ways that do not necessarily fully harmonize.

(Following Augustine’s advice that a sermon in form should resemble the form of the Scripture on which it is based, you here are offered in this sermon a collection of teachings that in all honesty are somewhat inelegantly jumbled together, in ways that do not fully harmonize (J)!)

Luke 14: 25ff. is composed near the end of the first century, the dating of Luke being somewhere between the writing of Mark, and Luke’s first citation in other sources—a wide berth to be honest.

The passage carries a hyperbolic dominical saying, not unlike the hyperbole in ‘if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out’, setting distance, a disciplined existential distance, between self and parents, self and spouse, self and progeny, self and family, self and security.  (Following in faith will include loss and conflict.)  Striking, isn’t it, how this prediction of leaving kith and kin, leaving home, intersects with the experience of coming to college?

Our text is perhaps best understood in Matthew’s rendering, (Matthew and Luke both have received the sayings from a shared earlier document, known by scholars as ‘Q”) ’‘whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me’ (Matt 10:37)

The use of the image of the cross probably means it was originally composed in the preaching of the church, not in the teaching of the Lord, whose cross was not yet, after all, at this point in the gospel narrative, on the horizon.  There is not a direct line, if there is any line at all, from Luke 14, in 90ad, to Jesus’ teaching, in 30ad.

Luke 14 is addressed to men (notice the absence, as S Ringe reminds us, of husbands in the list of those to be hated), a further indication Luke, largely inclusive of women, is using a document he has inherited, Q.

The reading does not reject the significance of every day economic, social, familial, political and even military life—the mini parables of tower and king keep our feet on the ground.  That is, there is a real respect here for what we might call common sense.  “Prudent action is the essential theme” (Ringe, LUKE, op. cit).

Luke 14  asks, in a serendipitously timely and direct way for us, considering Syria, that we count the cost.  The cost of a project.  The cost of a plan.  The cost of a conflict.  The cost of going to war.

Strictly speaking, the collection of sayings and mini-parables,(again, some written by Luke, some coming to us from the collection we call “Q”, then perhaps shaped by Luke) do not come to a neat conclusion in vs 33, the need to renounce all possessions.  The general point is clear enough though:  discipleship costs.  Nor, in sum, is this a call to asceticism, but more a ‘simple readiness for God’s demand’ (R Bultmann).

Syria

Consider a second verse of Scripture: “What king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?” (Lk 14: 32)

On your walk, you might be thinking about Syria.

You might be quietly thankful to live in a great country like ours wherein the uses of power, with responsibility, are considered and discussed.  Where a president turns to a congress for deliberation, debate and vote.  Where women and men in military service serve others by serving the cause of peace, and the keeping of the peace.

If I were with you I might chime in with a heartfelt gratitude for the freedom of the pulpit, and of this pulpit.  Our community has graciously over time listened to what it did not always like, and protected the statement of what it did not always affirm.  That is truly gracious.  We should bluntly repeat that on these things, grave issues of war and peace, people of good heart and mind, of good will and spirit, can honestly differ, and disagree.

You might also be thinking about religious teaching about war and peace. (I notice by Google, by the way, that there is exactly one book of sermons, in print, addressing the war in Iraq, 2001-2007.  I can tell you the ISBN number, if you like (J). )

From several rehearsals here, others with you might remember that our tradition has two sorts of teachings here, pacifism and activism.  On the left hand, we have the earliest teaching, Matt. 5 and elsewhere, not to resist the evil one, a pacifist tradition with far support than just the Mennonites, Quakers, Amish and others.  In fact this chapel and our school of theology, including my namesake Allan Knight Chalmers, embraced pacifism over many years, years ago.  ‘If anyone smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also’.  But our debate today is more on the other hand, the right hand if you will, Rom. 13 and elsewhere, of just war theory.   Here is the recognition, speaking of wisdom and innocence, serpents and doves, that justice for the lamb sometimes means resistance to the wolf.  It will be easy, finger by finger, for you to remember the issues and questions in this second form of Christian teaching:  is the action responsive not preemptive?, multilateral not unilateral?, ameliorative not imperial?, foresighted not unforeseeable?, proportionally limited not potentially limitless?

In the particular case of Syria 2013, grateful for presidential leadership that is war wary if not war weary, and willing to engage discussion, other questions may touch you, as, now studying in a great University, you exercise your reason.

What is the exact desired outcome?;  what the possible unintended consequences?;  why 90 days for a 1 to 2 day missile shot across the bow?; who quietly or silently, and for what reasons, is propelling this?; for enforcement of an international norm to be real, must it be military, or are there credible other options? Just what would a limited, proportional, meaningful deterrent be?;  have we exhausted every serious form of serious diplomacy?; what sort of precedents are we setting?.

Alternatively, what are the costs to peace and order of inaction in the face of 1400 gassed to death?; does not such a ‘brazen breach of an important norm’ require response if such a norm is not completely to unravel?; is the country war weary or war wary or both?; can we say and do more for refugees, some 2 million today from Syria, than we have done?;  why have the Arab League, European countries, NATO, the EU, the UN and so far congress been unwilling to enter a coalition of the willing?; is what is popular necessarily what is right?; how are we truly and best to ‘deliberate carefully, choose wisely, and embrace our responsibility’ (B Obama, 9/6/13)?;  what are we going to do about this?.

For now, we here will raise these questions, and watch and listen as the debate ensues this week.  We shall affirm, though, listening to Luke 14, as well, that the skeptical voices need carefully to be heard, both from within the church and from within the culture.

Sunshine

Consider a third verse of Scripture: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:27).

Your walk may bring you back past Marsh Chapel.  Think if you do about our time here two days ago, on Friday.

It was a beautiful, sun-dappled, bright Friday on Marsh Plaza.  Thanks to the College of Arts and Sciences, ice cream was served from four formal stations, and hundreds came to partake.  The chapel organ was booming, as musicians prepared for a busy weekend.  The Charles River glistened beyond ‘the beach’.   Blue sky, cool air, communal gathering—and ice cream.  A happy hour or two, on September 6.

I watched as Terriers older and younger sample the ice-cuisine.  Some looked into the chapel—named for a Methodist minister, our fourth president, Daniel Marsh, as is the plaza itself.  Some squinted up at John Wesley, above the front chapel door, in a robe, reading his Bible—the founder of Methodism, an English Protestant movement, in the 1700’s.  A couple, finished with their cones, looked in at the Connick stained glass windows, glanced at the Methodist hymnals in the pews, and peer at Abraham Lincoln (not a Methodist himself, though his biography—personal faithfulness, and social responsibility—epitomized the best of Methodism in his nineteenth century).   Three young men ringed the Boston University seal, next to the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument, and, avoiding stepping on the seal, read its motto, crafted long ago by Daniel Marsh, a thoroughly Methodist triad:  learning, virtue, and piety.   I wondered:  how could I briefly say to these hundreds just what lasting meaning the Methodist provenance of Boston University continues to have?  What difference does it make that in 1839 John Dempster—at Methodist minister from upstate New York—founded the theological seminary that later became our University?  After all, BU today is a large, urban, non-sectarian, northern, private, research university, which includes women and men from the whole inhabited earth.  What lingers from its birth out of Methodism?

Learning. The seal tells the story.  From its inception in America, Methodism, more energetically than any other tradition, established schools and colleges, from Beacon Hill in Boston all the way to route 66 and Claremont in California.  Today 128 universities, seminaries, and other schools adorn America, all fruit of an early love of learning, exemplified by John Wesley himself—an Oxford Don, a classics scholar, a biblical theologian.  Speaking of his beloved Bible, said Wesley, ‘I desire to be homo unius libri’, ‘a man of one book’.  Methodism never invested all authority in the Bible, because learning about the Bible pointed Wesley and his followers to other truths, in history and in reason and in experience.  Learning was the key.  My namesake, Professor Allan Knight Chalmers, a mentor to ML King and others, implored his graduate theological students to read ‘a book a day’.  The old saying that, nihil humanum, that ‘nothing human is foreign to us’, expresses the love of learning inherited from our Methodist past. Recognizing, with John 8:32, the crucial treasure of learning, of knowledge, we drank education with our mother’s milk at the birth of BU.

Virtue. But Methodism has more than academic rigor to offer us, in reflection on our past.  Learning and virtue and piety—knowing and doing and being, if you will—all are part of becoming fully human.  Methodism emphasized, and emphasizes, the shared experiences in life:  ‘that which has been believed always and everywhere by everyone’; ‘in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in things charity’; ‘a people happy in God’; ‘the best of all is, God is with us’.  Our BU history comes out of a movement of ‘doers’, in the main—dreamers, yes, and doubters, too, but largely doers. They put a church in virtually every county in the country.  They split, north and south, ahead of the civil war, over slavery.  Having been poor, they ministered always and fully with the poor.  They tithed (as most still do—giving away 10% each year of their earnings).  Wesley put it this way: ‘do all the good you can… Faith without works is dead.  Our modern BU work with the Chelsea schools can stand as an example of a dozen other great BU transformative gifts, which well up out of the ancient Methodist bone structure of the school.  BU over 170 years has defined itself, not by whom it excluded, but by whom it included—the children of the poor, the working class, former slaves, people of color, different religious traditions, women—and in our time, the otherwise abled, the gay and lesbian community,  internationals, and others.

Piety.  I admit this is a superannuated word.  It sounds vaguely and curiously cloistered.  But what it means is vital and crucial for you, and me.  That is, what we learn and how we act finally shape who we are.  There is a lasting, soulful dimension to the human being, an own-most self behind the public persona, a multi-dimensional person (in the tradition of Boston University’s own philosophical tradition of Personalism) down deeper than the one-dimensional surface.  At heart, for the Methodists, piety meant love, to love one another, even as God has loved us (1 John 4:7).  If we are not both lovers and knowers, both learners and lovers, we have left behind part of our souls.  But if we do love one another, these Methodists taught, God abides in us.  There are many ways to keep faith.  The tolerant, magnanimous openness of Methodism, at its best, reminds us so.  ‘If thine heart be as mine, give me thine hand’, said John Wesley.  Under the seal on Marsh plaza, on a sunlit, gleaming day, there lies the wonder and promise of love.  And after all, without love, and an experience of love, what is life for?  Charles Wesley, John’s 18th century musical brother sang it this way, in a hymn written for the opening of an elementary school in 1762:  Unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety…,

I have to think that all these long dead forebears would smile with delight at the next generation coming alive—knowing, doing, and being—in a happy gathering, in early September, on Marsh Plaza, Boston University.

Your spiritual fulfillment in college may include a leisurely walk or two, meditating on Scripture, considering the current quandary of Syria, stopping in the sunshine of Marsh Plaza to think again about our inheritance. Your spiritual fulfillment in these years may come from an honest, full reading of Scripture, an earnest, full exercise of reason, and an ample, full appreciation of tradition.

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

 

Set Sail

Sunday, September 1st, 2013

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The text for today’s sermon is unavailable.

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

The Sermon on the Mound

Sunday, August 25th, 2013

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Out on the Massachusetts Bay, in the autumn of 1630, Governor Jonathan Winthrop spoke to frightened pilgrims, half of whom would be dead before spring.  One can try to imagine the rolling of the frigate in the surf, out on the Atlantic.  One can feel the salt breeze, the water wind of the sea.  The Governor is brief, in his sermon for the day:  “We must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill.  The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world”.  A remarkable, truly remarkable warning, to our country, at the moment of its inception.

 

It is a cold day in early March, 1865.  Four score and eight years after Independence, the nation has indeed become, as Winthrop prophesied in his Boston sermon, “a story and byword through the world”.  600,000 men will  have died by the time Lee and Grant meet at Appomatox, approximately one death for every 10 slaves forcibly brought to the New World.  This day in March, Mr. Lincoln delivers his own sermon, to the gathered and we may assume chastened congress.  It is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address:  “The Almighty has His own purposes…Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.  Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of  blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.

 

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work that we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

 

Into the next decade the state of Mississippi will spend 20% of its annual budget, each year, for artificial limbs.  Lincoln himself will die within weeks.

 

Now we witness another gathering,  and we hear another sermon.  A hundred more years have past.  It is August 28, 1963, a sweltering day in the nation’s capitol.  Hundreds of thousands of women and men have gathered within earshot of Lincoln’s memorial, and within earshot of his Second Inaugural.  They have come—maybe some of you were there—with firmness in the right as God gives to see the right, to strive to finish the work.  A Baptist preacher captures the moment in ringing oratory:  “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood.”

 

Winthrop.  Lincoln.  King.  1630. 1865. 1963.  These are the  three greatest sermons ever preached in our country’s history.   Do you notice that not one of them was delivered in a church?  Yet they all interpret the church’s Gospel to the land of the free and the home of the brave.

 

Winthrop.  Lincoln. King.   They believed in God’s providence. They trusted, through terror, in God’s favor. They thought that persons, even they themselves, had roles to play in the divine drama.

 

They warned of tragedy, they endured tragedy, they honestly acknowledged tragedy.  What Winthrop prohesied, and what Lincoln witnessed, and what King attacked is our national tragedy still.   We still judge, by the color of skin and not by the content of character.

 

But God has not left us, nor does God abandon God’s children.  God works through human hearts, to bind up the nation’s wounds.  It is the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and this alone, which will bring peace.  The church has nothing better to do, nothing other to do, nothing more important to do, nothing else to do than to preach.  Preaching is everything, the whole nine yards.  Let others be anxious and fretful over much service:  you are a Christian—sit at Christ’s feet and lisp his Gospel to others.  For when the Gospel is rightly preached and rightly heard, heaven invades earth.

 

The best preaching happens beyond church.  Some is spoken and some is lived.  Said Franklin, teaching the only two values he thought important—industry and frugality: “none preaches better than the ant, and he says nothing”.   We are not so much resident aliens as dual citizens.

 

There is a godly love of country, a measured patriotism,  a tempered sense of national identity, that can save.  Today we have almost none of it left.  Those on the right have been dangerously infected by authoritarian neo-fascistic ideas and emotions that have no place before the cross.  Those on the left have mistakenly assumed that one could somehow exempt oneself from the national identity, have no national poetry, no healthy patriotism, no common faith with which to bow before the cross.

 

We have no choice about common identity, national character, love of country.  Listen to Winthrop and Lincoln and King.  What we have some limited influence over is the nature, the type, the relative health of such.  Notice the Beatitudes, how the blessing fall on groups.  Blessed are those…

 

I believe there is at least one saving story from which, over time, we may gain strength and insight for our common story, poetry and preaching.  What Whitman said about poetry is doubly true for the Gospel itself:  “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem…Here at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and the night…Really great poetry is always the result of a national spirit, and not the privilege of a polished and select few the strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung.”  Here is what a godly love of country can do.

 

This year, without much fanfare, we passed the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entrance into major league baseball.  The armed forces were still legally segregated.  So were public schools. That was America in 1947 when a tee-totaling Bible quoting Republican from Ohio integrated major league baseball.  Who remembers today the lone ranger type—so decried in church circles today—who spent most of a lifetime working for one transformation.  Rickey was taught the Gospel in the Methodist church of that time where there was to be no separation, like that we have today, between a deep personal faith (conservative) and an active social involvement (liberal).  Rickey was one of those people who just never heard that “it can’t be done”.  For thirty years, slowly, painstakingly, he manuevered and strategized and planned and brought about the greatest change in the history of our national pastime.  IT CAN BE DONE.  Go to Cooperstown this summer and see the story unfold.  There is sermon on the mound, preached in life, brought to voice through one lone Methodist, in one lone lifetime, in one lone sport, in one lone generation.  IT CAN BE DONE.  But you need a preacher, like Rickey: “I prefer the errors of enthusiasm to the reticence of wisdom”

 

Where is the Branch Rickey of Wall Street?

Where is the Branch Rickey of the local church?

Where is the Branch Rickey of the public school?

Where is the Branch Rickey of your neighborhood?

Where is the Branch Rickey of the urban\suburban

split in Monroe County?

Where is that secular saint who doesn’t realize it can’t be done?

Where is the preacher of the next sermon on the mound?

Maybe she is here today.  Maybe you are she.

 

I heard William McClain, an African American preacher, tell about growing up in Tuskegee Alabama. He grew up listening to the team Branch Rickey fielded in Brooklyn.  “When Jackie stood at the plate, we stood with him.  When he struck out we did too.  When he hit the ball we jumped and cheered.  When he slid home, we dusted off our own pants.  When he stole a base, he stole for us.  When he hit a home run, we were the victors.  And he was spiked we felt it, a long way away, down south.  He gave us hope.  He gave us hope.”

 

Don’t let people tell you things can’t change for the better.  They can.  This country can work.  We just need a few more Branch Rickeys and a few sermons on the mound.

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

 

The Courage to Live Eternally

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

1John 2:12-17; Luke 23:39-42

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Two others died on crosses with Jesus that Friday, according  to Luke.

 

The old translations of the Bible mistranslated the Greek word used to describe them so Christian legend came to call them thieves. Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is now number one on everybody’s best seller list.

 

Aslan is right that the two men who died on crosses with Jesus were not thieves but probably zealots and revolutionaries. Today we might call them –this is my word not Aslan’s– today we might call them insurgents.

 

Insurgents are patriots who fight against occupying forces much more powerful than they are. They fight not to win battles, which would be a lost cause, but because they hate oppression and they hate the oppressors and they hate those who collaborate with oppressors.

 

Israel was occupied by the Roman Empire so militarily advanced that Israel could never defeat them in battle but, lost cause or not, the most radical zealots fought and maimed, wounded and killed whenever and wherever they could.

 

The zealots hated the Romans. The Romans hated the zealots. The Romans reserved for zealots the worst, most painful, most humiliating form of punishment: execution by crucifixion.

 

As Reza Aslan argues, the two others dying on crosses near Jesus were most likely zealots. Aslan emphasizes their passion for social justice. He does not emphasize that they probably would have had the blood of Romans and Israelite collaborators on their hands.

 

In Luke’s story of the conversation between the zealots and Jesus, the crowd who’d come to watch the crucifixions is mocking Jesus and one of the zealots joins them. He mocks Jesus. The other zealot sides with Jesus. He says to the first zealot: You and I are guilty of what we are accused of doing and and deserve our punishment. But Jesus has done nothing wrong and does not deserve to die like this.

 

This second zealot says to Jesus: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Part of the reason Luke tells this story is because he wants to convince us that even though he died the death of a zealot, Jesus was not one. There was no blood on Jesus’ hands. Instead his blood is our hands … all we who crucified him or stood by and did nothing, do nothing. This is Luke’s point.

 

So the controversy that Reza Aslan raises in his book is not a new one. Luke was already trying to address it in his gospel written only a generation or so after Jesus’ death.

 

What particularly interests me this morning is Jesus’ response in Luke’s story to the second zealot who asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom.

 

Jesus answers: “Amen, I tell you that today you will be with me in paradise.”

 

Today you will be with me in paradise.

 

There is a sermon I have been trying to preach for a number of years now. It is a sermon a member of my church back in Washington, DC, asked me to preach.

 

She was a fascinating person as so many of those who attend my church are. As a young woman she had been recruited to Washington when the federal government was growing rapidly and every office was looking for young intelligent single women to move to DC to be secretaries because they needed someone to, well, actually do the work.

 

She had grown up in a small rural town in the south, studied at a local small Christian college for a year or two. She was very bright. Someone in Washington knew someone at her college; she wanted to see the world. She ended up in Washington organizing the calendar and life of someone important in the government.

 

She never married but over the years she developed a wonderful community of friends who became her family: People from the apartment building she lived in, people from the little pub where she spent Friday nights.

 

A gay friend from the pub first brought her to our church. I mention this only because it amused her so that a gay man was the one to bring her back to church. She once told me her friends were all the people the church she grew up in had told her never to associate with: people of different races and nationalities, gay people, people who had been divorced, people who were a bit cynical and who liked to tell slightly risqué jokes, people who would have been lonely without each other.

 

One day the friend she attended church with called to tell me that she had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. She had only months to live.

 

I called to ask if I could visit. She said she didn’t really need me to visit. She had friends to talk to. She didn’t really need me in her living room, she said.

 

But, if I wanted to do something for her, she said, this is what I could do: I could preach a sermon on a certain topic. The topic she wanted me to preach a sermon about was what happens after we die.

 

Her request left me fairly speechless. This is not what we focused on in the seminary next door to this chapel when I attended it. What happens after we die?

 

She has long since died and I trust knows more about the answer to her question than I do, but I have been trying to preach her sermon ever since in one form or another … without much success. But I keep trying, especially when I get a new audience to try to talk about it with, like you.

 

For a religion based on the story of a resurrection, the Bible really has relatively little to say about what happens after we die and what it says is not very systematic nor frankly is it very consistent.

 

The Gospel of John quotes Jesus saying his Father’s house has many dwelling places and he will go to prepare a place for us. His disciples get confused during this conversation and, as so often happens with the Gospel of John, when I try to study the passage too literally I get confused too. (John 14:1-9)

 

Already at the time the Bible was being written people –even Christians– were having a hard time with the idea of resurrection. What is it exactly that is resurrected? The Apostle Paul tries to explain it. The dead will be raised imperishable. The perishable must put on imperishability and the mortal must put on immortality. (I Cor. 14:35-58) Unpack that.

 

Paul finally admits that for now we see only through a mirror dimly. For now we know only in part. (I Cor. 13:12)

 

In the Book of Revelation, which you’d think might be the most helpful part of the Bible on this topic, we don’t even go to heaven so far as I can tell. Heaven comes down to earth. (Rev. 21:1-7)

 

The writer of the First Epistle of John is the most honest and vulnerable and agnostic — What we will be has not yet been revealed, he writes. What we do know is this: When he is revealed, we will be like him. (I John 3:2)

 

Other religions seem much more knowledgeable and concrete. Tibetan Buddhism describes exactly what happens to us during the first 49 days after we die.

 

Vedic Hinduism’s Garuda Purana describes what happens after we die in perfect detail including the dark tunnel we pass through as our soul moves from our old body to our new body. The direction we travel in the tunnel is due south.

 

The Koran says we will enter heaven through one of eight doors depending on which of eight religious practices we prioritized during our life on earth.

 

Our Bible, in contrast, seems to give us only hints and poetry.

 

Which is why as I decided to try this sermon one more time I came to focus on Jesus’ words to the zealot on the cross. Jesus says to him “Amen. I tell you that today you will be with me in Paradise.”

 

The word Paradise appears only three times in the New Testament. It is a word, scholars tell us, that has a different connotation than heaven. Heaven is a reference to fulfillment, completion, culmination, resolution, the end. Heaven is when and where God’s will is finally fully and completely done.

 

Paradise is a reference backwards … back to the garden … back to Eden … back before history began … before Cain murdered Abel (Gen. 4:8) … before Hamor raped Dinah (Gen. 34:2) … before Shem made Canaan his slave Gen 9:25) … before we learned prejudice and racism and sexism and homophobia and xenophobia and greed and dominion and the fear that if I share with you there may not be enough left over for me.

 

Jesus says to the zealot whose life is defined by oppression and hate but who reaches out in kindness to him as they hang on crosses together, today you will be with me where and when the world has not yet turned into what it has become.

 

He says: We are going back to before we were wounded and before we began wounding others until the whole world became a world of woundedness and violence. We are going back to the garden.

 

I am not sure. I don’t know. I don’t know if we are going forward towards heaven or backward towards Eden …  but there is something I find hopeful about the idea of being with Jesus in paradise. There is something appealing about the undoing of all we have done to hurt each other and to hurt the earth. There is something appealing about the undoing of all the pain I have caused, all the good I’ve left undone.

 

First John says: “The world and its desires are passing away but those who do the will of God live forever.” (I John 2:17)

 

The world and its desires are passing away.

 

Fred Buechner says people don’t pass away. It is the world that is passing away … the world and its desires. Hate is passing away. Greed is passing away. Ignorance is passing away. Prejudice is passing away.

 

The world and its desires are passing away but you and I –the you and I created by God in the garden to be companions to one another, the you and I before we began to murder and rape and enslave each other– the real you and The real me will live forever.

 

If I could preach this sermon to the woman who asked me to preach it I would tell her that the hate and fear the church she grew up in tried to teach her is passing away but the love she discovered with her gay, divorced, irreverent neighbors and her friends at the pub, this love she opened her heart to will never pass away.

 

Carol Zaleski in a lecture at Harvard reported that six years before his death America’s greatest philosopher William James received a questionnaire from one of his former students.

 

One of the questions was “Do you believe in personal immortality?”

 

James answered: “Never keenly, but more strongly as I grow older.”

 

The next question was: “If so, why?”

 

James answered: “Because I am just getting fit to live.”[i]

 

The world damages us so. Not the world God created; the world we have created.   It teaches us to hate those who hate us until we all hate each other. It teaches us to be suspicion of those who seem different from us until we are suspicious of everybody. It teaches us not to trust until we are all distrustful of each other.  It teaches us murder, it teaches us rape, it teaches us domination.

 

But, take courage,  because the world and its desires are passing away. Even the part of the world that lives inside of me and inside of you is passing away. Even the part of the broken, messed up world that lives inside of me and inside of you is passing away.

 

As we make our way back to the garden or forward to heaven, whichever it is, I so want to learn how to trust, how to forgive, how to accept forgiveness, how to be unreservedly generous, how to love with all my heart. On the day I die, I want to finally be ready to live.

 


[i] Carol Zineski, “In Defense of Immortality,” First Things (August/Septembver 2000) Find on the web at http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/in-defense-of-immortality-26.

 

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Pastor

Foundry UMC, Washington DC

 

Why Marriage Matters: The Church and Marriage Equality

Sunday, August 11th, 2013

Genesis 2: 18-25; Matthew 19:3-12

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After I graduated from Boston University School of Theology forty-one years ago and became a local church pastor if you’d told me that I would preach at Marsh Chapel during my last year of active ministry and that the topic I would choose to talk about would be marriage I would not have believed you.

Marriage was a routine part of the life of the church and my work as a pastor, usually more fun than funerals. We did premarital education and counseling with couples but we drew much more heavily on psychology and the social sciences than we did biblical studies or theology or ethics when we taught and counseled.

I am fairly amazed that I have spent so much time these last several years of my ministry trying to understand marriage biblically, theologically, and even politically.

It is in some part your fault, Massachusetts. In 2004 you became the first state in our nation to make same-sex marriage legal, and look what has happened since. Less than ten years later, marriage equality is now the law in 13 states, the District of Columbia, and five Native American tribes.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government must recognize and honor same-sex marriages conducted in states where they are legal.

A recent Gallup poll indicates that 52 percent of Americans would vote for a federal law that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

It seems increasingly likely what you began here in Massachusetts will eventually reach every state and beyond.

The argument in the courts and on the public square for marriage equality, put simply, is that marriage is a civil right and that we cannot constitutionally deny any group of people their civil rights.

Earl Warren writing the 1967 Loving v Virginia Supreme Court decision said: “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men” … and presumably by free women as well.

Legally, marriage is a civil right and so marriage equality for adults of all races, nationalities, genders, sexual orientations and identities is undeniable.

Since the principle of equality is rooted in the teachings of all of the Abrahamic religions, you might think the churches, synagogues, mosques and meetings of America would applaud another advance for justice.

This, of course, has not entirely been the case. There have been problems.

One problem is the Bible. The Bible simply always assumes that marriage is between a man and a woman or, in some cases, between a man and women. As the religious opponents of marriage equality like to say, there is no Adam and Steve in the Bible. It is true. There isn’t.

So to understand marriage equality people of biblical faith need to take a leap of theological deduction and imagination. We need to ask whether the Bible’s teachings about marriage are about anatomy and biology and physiology or whether they are about the quality of relationship between two people who love each other and want to make the profound commitment to each other that we call marriage.

It is a theological leap many find difficult and it is a leap, frankly, it would never have occurred to us to take …  except that we have known gay and lesbian couples who have demonstrated in their lives together this quality of love and commitment that is the ideal of marriage. It is because of them that we’ve needed to go back and read the Bible again and see if we can find room for them in the story.

I have tried to read and consider carefully the arguments of those who oppose marriage equality on the basis of biblical teachings. Most now acknowledge that the battle within the American culture is pretty well settled. They acknowledge the secular culture has changed its mind. The secular culture now accepts same-sex marriage.

But, they argue, the church needs to be counter-cultural. They argue that the church cannot allow the secular culture to redefine biblical teaching.

it seems to me this argument is based on the theological assumption that God is not present or at work within the culture, only within the church. The assumption is that the culture is godless while the church holds all godly truth. I find no substantial support for this way of thinking within Scripture or Christian tradition and certainly not experience.

Jesus says the wind blows where it chooses. (John 3:8) The spirit goes where it will.

Biblically God has always resisted being caged inside temple walls built by human hands. God’s very name is I am who I am and I will be who I will be. (Exodus 3:14)

The Gallup poll I mentioned that indicates that 52 percent of Americans would vote for a federal law that made same-sex marriage legal in all states has some other interesting data. Among those who said they rarely or never attend church or a house of worship, 67 percent said they would vote for same-sex marriage. Among those who say they attend church monthly or nearly weekly, 51 percent said they would vote for same-sex marriage. Among those who reported that they attend church weekly only 23 percent said they would vote for same-sex marriage and 73 percent said they’d vote against it.

I hate to say this but it may be a mistake to spend too much time in church. God is not contained within church walls nor within the covers of a book. God is in the world –at work in the culture– and only when we are listening to both the book and the world can we find a path toward understanding God’s will and way.

We come to church not because this is where God lives and we want to pay a visit. We come here to recall where God encountered us in our lives in the world last week and to prepare ourselves to meet God in the workplace, the classroom, the bowling alley, the bar, the ballpark in the week to come.

The theologian Karl Barth said that the preacher needs to have a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Christians need to pay attention to both the book and the culture.

Unless our experience in the world helps us always read the Bible anew, it becomes a dead book that keeps us buried in the ancient past instead of the story of a God of justice, inclusion, and love who helps us find our way into the future … a future the people who wrote the book would have never imagined but which they understand to be consistent with what they began as they watch us from heaven.

I serve a church in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC. We reflect our neighborhood. On an average Sunday, a fourth to a third of our congregation are openly gay and lesbian men and women.

We are part of a denomination that forbids same-sex commitment ceremonies or weddings. The rules say these ceremonies shall not be celebrated in our buildings or by our clergy.

Back before marriage equality came to the district we started doing what we called services to honor gay and lesbian committed relationships. Couples would come here to Massachusetts to be married or they would have private ceremonies in their homes where they exchanged vows and then we would have a public service in church to honor their commitment. We were careful not to celebrate until we’d left the building. We didn’t break the rules.

Then in the fall of 2009 friends started telling me that marriage equality was coming to the district. I went to my board and asked, “If it happens, what do we do?”

Clergy and congregations in my denomination had been punished in the past for doing same- sex weddings.  Pastors had been suspended or even defrocked, the ministries of congregations had been disrupted.

We were engaged in a dozen ministries in our community as well as trying to provide quality religious education for our children and youth and all the ordinary programs congregations do. We were working with others to end homelessness. We were engaged in global mission in Haiti. We were trying to address the ridiculously high incarceration rate of young African-American men in our city.

We didn’t want our ministries disrupted. And we had no desire to break any rules.

We started a congregational conversation that lasted for several months.

The conversation was a bit chaotic and confusing. We were all over the place in our thinking. No path ahead was emerging.

Then during yet another disjointed, somewhat frustrating, congregational meeting Doug stood up and walked to the front of the sanctuary. Doug of Sam and Doug. Known by everyone in the congregation. Between Doug and Sam they had served on countless committees and task forces and mission groups. They were faithful, generous, always offering their home for meetings. They were loving towards each other, caring towards others, especially the elderly and weak of the congregation.

Doug stood before the congregation and simply said “I want to be married in my church by my pastor.”

I want to be married in my church by my pastor.

The tone and direction of the conversation changed. We were no longer talking about theories or strategies or consequences. We were talking about Sam and Doug.

In September 2010, Foundry Church members adopted a policy of marriage equality by a vote of 367 to 8.

We just cannot read the Bible as though Sam and Doug do not exist. We cannot be the church as though Sam and Doug were invisible.

Marriage equality as the law of the land is good and right, but the struggle will not be over until it is settled in our faith communities.

While marriage is a civil legal status, it is more than that. We don’t go to our lawyers to marry us.   We go, most of us, to our priests, pastors, rabbis and imams.

The latest edition of the textbook Choices in Relationships: Introduction to Marriage and Family by David Knox and Caroline Schacht says that 80 percent of marriage ceremonies in America are conducted by clergy. A 2011 article[i] by Michelle Boorstein in the Washington Post suggests this percentage may be declining but the majority of Americans still go to a person they believe to be a man or woman of God to be married. Even those who don’t, Michelle Boorstein reports, still often include religious rituals in their ceremonies.

There is a deep intuition within us that marriage is more than just a secular legal contract. In the love and intimacy of marriage, even in the times of distance and disagreement and disappointment that we need to painfully work our way through, even in the experience of brokenness of a marriage … in the joys and struggles of marriage we experience something that is like the relationship between humanity and God. We know deep down that our marriages are not just legal but also holy and sacramental.

The creation story of Genesis 2 talks about the purpose of marriage. Genesis 2:24 and 25 say: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and they were not ashamed.”

The holy purposes of marriage are, first, to get you out of your parent’s home. Then –holiest of all– it is to give you someone to hold on to … to cling to in bad times, to hug in good times, to hold on to when holding on is hard … to give you someone to become one flesh with even as your flesh grows old … and to give you someone to be naked with without shame.

How could we be so unimaginative, so incapable of translation and deduction, so densely literal that we would deny such a holy marriage to Sam and Doug? If we don’t start doing it, the rocks in the walls of our buildings will start putting on our robes and stoles and doing weddings themselves.

Jesus said it — Those whom God has joined together, let no one separate.

 


[i] Michelle Boorstein, “More couples pick friends to preside at weddings,” Washington Post, Sept. 16, 2011.

~The Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Pastor

Foundry United Methodist Church, Washington DC

 

Summer Grace

Sunday, August 4th, 2013

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Sometimes we arrive in worship with a personal, compelling need. We find our familiar pew. We turn at the appointed hour to the radio frequency. We enter a spirit of prayer. Sometimes we bring, or are brought by, a compellingly particular concern.

 

In fact, on many occasions of return to worship, after a hiatus, or an absence, or a distance, we come trying to sort something out. We are, after all, ‘persons becoming persons’ as Carlyle Marney used to say, and well say. We are in the process of becoming who we are, bit by bit, trouble by trouble, hurt by hurt, scrape by scrape. The more irregular rhythms of the summer, with its heat spots and rain storms and family visitors and office coverages, can sometimes become a kind of summer grace, allowing us to recollect, to reckon with our souls, to seek a summer grace in Word and Table, preaching and sacrament.

 

Sometimes the malady is major. Our dearest friendship can come in danger, if we do not keep our friendships in good repair. You may come to work to discover that an office mate, a trusted friend, whose friendship you may have taken for granted, has felt unappreciated, and so has gone on to greener pastures, now that there are a few more jobs around from which to choose—not enough, just a few more. Or a regular summer picnic may reveal an absence, someone whose presence you expected, and missed. You may come some Sunday, having realized on Saturday night that your marriage, seemingly so solid, has revealed a human but painful fracture. A most painful weight to bear, for sure. Our reading from Hosea, the loveliest passage in the Hebrew Scripture, comes from a book in the Bible written straight of the pain of infidelity. It can be a ready reassurance to hear that for a long time, and in the heart of sacred writing, there is a shared experience, for yours, the deep recognition of deep hurt. Hosea even makes of his own pain a way to understand the gracious, lasting, love of God—‘my compassion grows warm and tender’. In the cup and bread today, for you, there is a summer grace, a personal honesty about pain but also a personal witness to endurance. You can get through this. ‘I am the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy’.

 

Sometimes the trouble is a shared trouble, a time of trouble, a time in trouble. The poets often will warn us, even a decade in advance. So TS Eliot wrote The Wasteland in 1922, and envisioned 1932 and 1942. We disregard our poets to our peril. So summer can be a good time to remember them, and to memorize the biblical poetry of the psalms. In Robert Raines’ family the children were prized with a soda when they had memorized a psalm. Is that bribery or is that good parenting? Or both?  When we realize that at some deep level, the moorings are loosened in our community or culture, then we may come to church a little dazed, a little unbalanced, not quite sure why. Thirsty, in a way, hungry, in another way. I have been preaching and teaching through the summer, and regularly people will ask about Boston. How are you? How are things there? They are not referring—usually—to Whitey Bulger, or even—usually—to the Red Sox. One woman from the Midwest was wearing a shirt that said ‘Boston Strong’. As a guest preacher I usually say something general in response, using a collected vocabulary—‘pretty well…good people…very resilient…courageous women and men…yes, Boston Strong.’ But as a pastor I also have other thoughts, not so easily expressed in a less familiar setting. Yes, strong. But we also have our forms of wandering, as the psalmist puts it. We also know about the soul fainting, as the psalmist puts it. A photo of an innocent middle aged woman, now legless, is all it takes, at least for me, to recognize the truth of the Scripture and its repeated emphasis on cries in trouble. Not only sorrow, but anger, not only grief, but very human rage will bring us to the desert. It takes time, real time, and a long time, to process trauma, and when you least expect it, the desert can envelope you. That may bring you to listen to a sermon, or attend a church, to hunt out again the lasting love of God. If nothing, no one else: ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever’. Boston Strong? Maybe Boston Getting Stronger?

 

Sometimes the trouble is amnesia. I am getting to the point that I need a solution or two to daily amnesia. Where are my glasses? Keys? Sermon notes? I should say, when I lay them down, ‘I am putting my glasses on the bureau’. But we know a bigger, that is to say, a real sort of amnesia, too, that sometimes sits right with us in the pew, right beside us in the arm chair. What am I doing here? What is the point of all this struggle? I seem to have lost my way. I find it greatly comforting, on a daily and weekly basis, to see that in the very marrow of the Scripture, my wandering forgetfulness is known, shared, experienced, addressed. The recognition of a lost path, a way forgotten, an amnesia about something that really matters—this too is a summer grace. The student of Paul who honored Paul by writing pseudonymously a letter to the Colossians in his name had us in mind here, or had this in mind at least, our amnesia. Remember: you have been raised. Remember: seek the good big high great things. Remember: your life is hid with Christ in God. Remember: you are wearing a new nature, a renewed nature, which connects you in love to every other. ‘Christ is all, and in all.’

 

Then sometimes, too, the unexpected arrives, supplanting security with radical change, unplanned and unforeseen. A good morning to listen to the radio service, or, better, to find your way to church can be this very moment of cataclysm. It is only sparing help to recall that many others in the history of the race have woken up, suddenly, to discover that all the barns full of grain carefully and responsibly stewarded cannot get us past a great loss, a loss of life, a loss of self, a loss of soul. Faith is only faith when it is all you have left to go on. (repeat) Then it is faith, for that is what we mean by faith, walking ahead into the dark. Sometime go through the pages of the Scripture and just watch for the number of occasions when the people in the Bible are suddenly and unexpectedly accosted with trouble, through no fault of their own. In St Luke today, the man is a prosperous farmer. But in other spots he is a favorite son thrown in a pit, a patriarch wrestling with a demon, a leader dying in a cave, a scout frightened by grasshoppers, a prophet unheeded until too late, an Apostle who knows about a thief in the night, a disciple who thought his betrayal would go unnoticed, a king who expects wrongly that his son will be honored, a father whose son leaves home, an honest worker who loses his job, a woman who has to plead until blue in the face before a judge who could not care less. And then:  a Savior, a man of compassion, an embodiment of love, a healing teacher, a Lord, a Messiah—crucified. In the summer, for us, sometimes, it can be restorative to see that we have company on the days when night falls early. ‘One’s life does not consist in an abundance of possessions’. Or positions.

 

Right now our land and landscape are covered with a vast carelessness. A vast carelessness regarding the poor. A vast carelessness regarding the children of the poor. A vast carelessness regarding the other—otherwise oriented, otherwise abled, otherwise viewed. We have made some headway, by the Dow measurement anyway, in the building of better barns. (Nor should we, nor do I diminish the importance of bodily, physical, fiscal health.) But the parable today though brutally admonishes us that love is for the wise. The body is not the soul. Fool! Today your SOUL is required.

 

This month, later this month, we shall remember Martin Luther King’s great sermon from 50 years ago. August 28, 1963, a sweltering day in the nation’s capital. It was indeed a soul, a soulful moment. Some of you listening, some perhaps present, were there. Most have heard King’s words, more than once.  His was a life ‘rich toward God’. How? How so? What shall we recall fifty years hence? In its remembrance, this month, will our souls come alive that we might be rich toward God? Remember…

 

First, that King was a preacher. He was a preacher first and last. His words, rhetoric, angle of vision were formed in the life of the Christian church, the black church, the pulpit. Taylor Branch tells of an intense Sunday afternoon meeting, King and colleagues, when a knock came at the door. There, an older woman, in Sunday clothes, carrying a basket. She came with something to eat—chicken and biscuits I believe. And they stopped, the planning stopped, the work stopped. She had brought something for the preacher. It was a summer grace to receive it, as is our communion. Today. King was not first an academic, an organizer, a teacher, a prophet, a social leader. He was a preacher. May that be for those of you considering such a calling—then higher in status and lower in stress, now lower in status and higher in stress—a hard vocation, that is, one worth doing—leave the easier things for others, may that be an encouragement to you of what such a calling can mean. Marsh Chapel has every reason to commend and recommend King as a preacher. Further, the series this summer, the primary preachers from the primary northern Methodist pulpits, is meant as a sign for the future when the collapse of general agencies, general conferences, general superintendencies, and generalized discipline will give way, as it is already doing, to real, vocal, preached, pulpit leadership, like that represented in Foundry Church, Washington DC, Christ Church, NYC, Asbury First, Rochester, and Marsh Chapel, Boston.

 

Second, King was a personalist. That is, he was formed in the philosophical theology of Boston University, Boston personalism. Border Parker Bowne, Edgar Brightman—the quintessential, even revelatory uniqueness of the human personality as a clue to the divine. Now in our more naturalist age, personalism is less known, less favored. But you can hear it in King when, in Letter from Birmingham Jail, he talks about the clouds and dimness he sees in his little daughters’ eyes as they are told that they are not welcome in Funtown, an amusement park. We are all persons becoming persons. The freshmen who come here in a few weeks were all of eleven years old seven years ago when we began our Marsh Chapel work. They are persons, in whose personalities there is a reflection, a revelation of the divine. But they are far from formed, as are we all. Mature in body, perhaps, but not yet in soul. Sent with such high hopes—theirs, their parents’, their schools’, their siblings’. King battled a vast cultural carelessness because of the effect on personality such carelessness has.

 

Third, King worked at a profound depth. Notice in his sermon that he speaks of dream, not of ‘a really good idea’. That is the sermonic difference between the right word and the almost word, between truth and falsehood, death and life, inspiration and desperation. But there is something for us today, this summer, much harder and truer to his profundity. King was able to speak in a way that gathered a true solidarity to his cause, the cause of civil rights, racial justice, not later, but now. You hear it and recall it in phrases, ‘not by the color of skin but by the content of character’. His voice brought inspiration and solidarity to a movement. But that was not all. He also somehow had the magic and mysterious spirited rhetoric to evoke more than solidarity, to evoke community. That is, he was able to gather under the wings of his words those, even those, who may not at the moment have agreed with him. Not just solidarity to a cause. But hope, a dream of a beloved community, too. Now that is genius. You hear it in phrases. ‘That on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave holders will sit down at the table of brotherhood’. Not just solidarity for those who now agree, but the hope of community we those who are not yet with us. I wish I could find the tongue in our time, facing our own issue of humanity and justice, that of the full humanity of gay people, to do the same. Maybe one day that will come…

 

Sometimes we arrive in worship with a personal, compelling need. We find our familiar pew. We turn at the appointed hour to the radio frequency. We enter a spirit of prayer. Sometimes we bring, or are brought by, a compellingly particular concern.

 

You may come with a fractured relationship.

 

Draw near in faith, and take this holy sacrament, this summer grace, to your comfort.

 

You came as a still wounded city, not so much strong as getting stronger.

 

Draw near in faith, and take this holy sacrament, this summer grace, to your comfort.

 

You may come with amnesia about your salvation already wrought in Christ.

 

Draw near in faith, and take this holy sacrament, this summer grace, to your comfort.

 

You may come in the throes of a mortal struggle between body and soul, bigger barns and a farther shore, carelessness and care.

 

Draw near in faith, and take this holy sacrament, this summer grace, to your comfort.

 

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

That I Should Gain

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

Mark 10:35-45

Click here to hear the full service.

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It’s a boy!  George Alexander Louis.  On Monday afternoon, the world waited on pins and needles to hear about the birth of the new heir to the throne of England. It was, by all accounts, a momentous occasion. Filled with shouts of joy, the ringing of bells, and many many souvenirs.  Sure, there were and continue to be some critics—those who ask, rightly, why we would celebrate the birth of one uber-privileged child when we virtually ignore the hundreds of thousands of poor children being born into this world every day.

 

And to be fair, they have a point.  After all, as a people of faith we know that every child born into this world matters just as much as the royal baby.

 

But as a people of faith, we also know that new life is new life.  And whenever we witness it, wherever we witness it, we have reason to celebrate.

 

And frankly, couldn’t the world use a reason celebrate? Couldn’t we use a little good news about now? After all, we’ve definitely experienced our fair share of bad news lately, we’ve felt our fair share of pain and strife and death. We’ve felt it here on the sidewalks of Boston, we’ve felt in the courtrooms of Florida, we’ve felt it on the streets of Egypt and Syria.

 

And as we know from experience, sometimes it’s only those little reminders of new life that keep us going.  So when we find it, we have reason to celebrate.

 

But as we also know from experience, whether we celebrate it or not, new life isn’t easy.  No! As William and Kate are no doubt discovering with their new, very tangible form of new life…it isn’t always easy.  It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, young or old, black or white, gay or straight, having a baby is not easy.  It’s not.  It’s an entirely new way of life.  There’s crying…lots and lots of it.  There’s feeding…lots and lots of it.  There’s…the end result of feeding…lots and lots of it.

 

In other words, friends, even new life itself comes with challenges.  It’s worth it, but it’s hard.

 

And we, of all people, should understand.  After all, as Christians we, too believe in a way of life that is much more than we could have ever bargained for, full of responsibilities and frustrations, but like a new parent, once we have experienced it, fully experienced it, we couldn’t live any other way.

 

And so today, after a week in which people around the world paused to celebrate new life in our midst, we pause a moment longer to consider what new life means.

 

We get assistance in our quest today from the Gospel of Mark.

 

Now some will know that the Gospel of Mark was the first gospel written, as early as 30 years after the death of Jesus.  It was written to a community that would have had to face its own fair share of pain and strife and death, and who were no doubt starting to recognize that being a community of faith was not all sunshine and roses.  We can hear that tension in our story today.

 

Our passage begins just after Jesus has shared some hard news with his disciples; news of pain and strife and death.  Jesus has told the disciples for the third and final time in Mark’s gospel that the son of man will be given over to the chief priests and that he will be condemned and killed and that after three days he will rise again.

 

He has shared this same thing with the disciples two other times in Mark’s gospel. And in each of those other times, we are told that the disciples ask questions and express confusion.

 

And, frankly, we get it. After all, when we’re confronted with hard news in our own lives, our first impulse is often to question it; to want a second opinion; to pretend like it isn’t really about us. It’s a way of protecting ourselves from the pain of the news.

 

But one of the hard lessons of life, friends, is that simply ignoring something doesn’t make it go away…just ask the people of Syria.

 

And we get the sense in Mark’s telling of this story that it took until this third time hearing it for the reality of what Jesus had been saying to set in; because in our story today, instead of questions, or confusion, or denial, the disciples are not reported as saying anything.

 

They were silent.

 

And, if we’re honest, we get this too. We know that sometimes when we are confronted with hard news, when we are forced to finally hear it and acknowledge it and accept it, we just don’t know what to say.

 

We don’t know what to say and so we don’t say anything. Sometimes, friends, we just need that sweet grace of silence.

 

Certainly this is a lesson our world could afford to hear; a reminder that, believe it or not, sometimes it’s ok to be silent.  Sometimes we don’t need a 100 cannon blasts, or a million tweets, or a full running commentary.  Sometimes we just need silence.

 

Imagine how different our world would be if each time a child was born we had a moment of silence.  It might make some kids harder to ignore.

 

But just as in our world, in our story, the silence doesn’t last forever.  James and John, two of the first disciples called in Mark’s gospel, two of the witnesses to the transfiguration of Jesus a chapter earlier, break the silence by saying to Jesus. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

 

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

 

It’s a pretty bold demand. So bold in fact that Matthew changes this passage to have their mother ask on their behalf, perhaps recognizing that it takes some chutzpah to stand in front of Jesus, their teacher, the messiah, and ask for their wishes to be granted.

 

And frankly, if we knew it worked that way, we’d no doubt have a few things to ask ourselves.

 

But Jesus, ever patient, simply responds, “What is it that you want me to do for you?”

 

And we think, aha! Now’s their chance!  Now’s their moment to get answers to all of life’s troubling questions, why do bad things happen to good people, what is the meaning of life, what’s up with the name Louis? And our excitement starts to build as they open their mouths and say to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left hand in your glory.”

 

What?!? What does that mean?  They have just been told that their teacher, their master, their friend is not going to be with them anymore and they are worried about seating arrangements?  What gives?

 

But then we remember the sweet grace of silence and take a moment to listen again. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left hand in your glory.” –and it starts to make sense. Friends, this is not just about seating arrangements in some heavenly throne room.  No! It’s the disciples expressing fear about being left alone.  It’s the disciples starting to get what Jesus has been saying.  Jesus has just told them that he is not going to be with them forever.  This man whom they had given up everything in their lives to follow is now going to be leaving them and they are basically saying, “take us with you.”

 

A chapter earlier these same disciples witnessed Jesus standing in his glory as he was transfigured. They witnessed a taste of the beauty of God and didn’t know how they were going to find that again alone. Do you see? They had been witnesses to what life could be and didn’t want to live with what actually is.

 

Friends, we know what this is like. We know what it’s like to face a long hard road ahead and want to just be there.  Every four years The United Methodist Church meets to make decisions about the doctrine and practice of our beloved denomination.  And every four years for the past 40 we have failed to recognize the full humanity of gay and lesbian people.  And although some of us have glimpsed the possibility of what could be, we are forced to live with what actually is.  And if we’re honest, we dread it, we’re embarrassed by it, we just want to be there.

 

But that’s not the way it works.  No.  For better or worse, a big part of the way of life taught by Jesus Christ is life itself, in all its gory details.

 

Friends, our faith is about life. Not after death, but right now.  And Jesus understood this. He understood that our faith is not about earning a place at the table in the sweet by and by, it is about opening a place at our tables right now.

 

In other words, life is not a means to an end, it is the end itself. And make no mistake, what we have been given as a people of faith is life, new life, precious life; we’ve been given an example of what it means to fully live.

 

“I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.”

 

But here’s the kicker: new life takes work.  It takes work. It takes not just accepting the world as it is, but working to make it what it could be.

 

Jesus responds to them, “You do not know what you are asking for.”

 

He says, “Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

 

In other words, be careful what you wish for because when we skip the hard work and jump straight to the end, we miss out on the most important part…life.  Not a life free from pain, but life nonetheless.

 

It was announced this week that the Rev. Stephen Heiss, a United Methodist Minister from my home conference in Upper New York will be brought up on charges for performing homosexual marriages, one of which was for his own daughter.  Rev. Heiss is an example of someone who does not just see the world for how it is, but how it could be, and is doing the hard work of living.  It’s not easy, but it’s life.

 

Friends, there is and will always be pain and strife and death, that is part of life, but there is also always the possibility of new life. And whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, we have a part in it. A vital part. And if we don’t live into it, no one else will.

 

Not wanting to hear what Jesus is saying, the disciples respond that they are able to drink the cup and be baptized with the water, but again Jesus says to them, that you may be able to drink the cup and be baptized in the water, but in the end, it is not his to grant.
This is admittedly strange language, implying that Jesus doesn’t have the power to snap his fingers and make things happen, but we also know this to be true.

 

Friends, we know that we have been given freedom to live in this world. We know that God doesn’t cause pain and strife and death.  No! Those things are part of the freedom God has given us to live in this world, but so is joy and hope and love.  In other words, the promise of our faith is not that bad things are not going to happen to us.  No. They will.  The promise is that we don’t have to face them alone.

 

Friends, do you hear?  We are not alone.

 

Surely, the language of the cup and the water in this passage is a reminder. After all, Mark’s audience would certainly have recognized these two symbols of the Christian faith. These two sacraments that remind us over and over again that we are now the body of Christ for the world; that we are part of the family of God.

 

As the epistle lesson for today reminds us, we are God’s children now, what we will be is yet to be revealed. It’s a reminder both that we are not God, but also that we’re not only children.

 

Or said another way, we might not be able to sit on the throne of God, but as Howard Thurman might say, we have certainly all been given a crown to grow into.  In the example of Christ, we have had a crown placed over our head which for the rest of our lives we will keep trying to grow tall enough to wear.

 

Friends, we might not be heirs to the throne of England, but each of us by virtue of our birth has a crown.  Surely that’s worth a celebration.

 

Do you see? James and John saw what they thought they wanted, to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus, and like so many of us wanted the end without the means and in the process missed the point of our faith entirely.

 

As Christians we are not called to a destination, we are called to a journey; a way of life.  And by not granting them their wish, Jesus offered them a chance to truly live.

 

When the other ten disciples heard the conversation going on we are told that they became angry. We don’t quite know which part angered the others, but we know that it was enough that Jesus again reminded them that they were called to a different way of life.

 

He reminds them that there are those in the world who lord power over one another, but that they are called to serve one another; to care for one another; to love one another.  In other words, he reminds them again that whatever they do, they do it together.  And as many have learned in recent months, we can face a lot if we know we don’t have to face it alone.  Friends, the good news of the gospel is that we are not alone.

 

Our passage today closes with these words from Jesus. “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

 

A ransom is that which frees us from captivity.

 

Friends, what is it that holds us captive? What is it that keeps us from fully living? Money, family, fear?  Christ is our ransom. Not as some sacrifice sent from God, but as one who frees us from our captivity. He breaks us out of our bonds and shows us how to fully live. He takes away the identities that society tries to place on us and reminds us over and over again that whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, we are all children of God.  All of us, young and old, black and white, gay and straight, male and female, royal or common.  Which ultimately means that we all have a chance at life.

 

Will it be easy? No. Like having a baby, living as a person of faith in the world means having some late nights, it means taking some unwanted responsibilities, it means shelling out some hard-earned cash, and it even means having to put our hands in some things that we never want to touch, but the truth is, we couldn’t live any other way.

 

Amen.

 

~The Rev. Stephen M. Cady, II

Pastor, Asbury First UMC, Rochester, NY

The Abominable Neighbor, Part 2

Sunday, July 21st, 2013

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The text for this sermon is currently unavailable.

 

~The Rev. Stephen Bauman

Senior Minister, Christ Church (UMC), New York

The Abominable Neighbor

Sunday, July 14th, 2013

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The text for this sermon is currently unavailable.

 

~The Rev. Stephen Bauman

Senior Minister, Christ Church (UMC), New York

 

It Depends

Sunday, July 7th, 2013

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

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In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Don’t you just love it when the Fourth of July, Independence Day, falls on a Thursday?  When it falls on a Wednesday we are expected to go back to work on Thursday and Friday, but on a Thursday most employers just give up and give everyone Friday off as well.  A four-day weekend for the Fourth!  What could be more appropriate!

Independence Day, of course, is the National Day of the United States of America, and on it we commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  -That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, -That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”  Independence Day, then, is a celebration of the rejection of undependable government for a government that will hopefully be more dependable in guarding the nature and rights of men.  (And, yes, most if not all of the signers of the Declaration really did mean to restrict independence to people of the male sex).  Since the beginning this celebration has been enacted in forms such as waving flags, singing patriotic songs, marching in parades, shooting off fireworks, having picnics, attending concerts, giving speeches, and conducting ceremonies.  Perhaps there is no more quintessential celebration of Independence Day than the Fourth of July barbeque, a somewhat tardy version of which we are hosting here at Marsh Chapel following the service today.  (No, no!  I said following the service.  Now, get back in the pews so I can finish the sermon!).

There are a number of ironies associated with Independence Day.  For example, those flags we wave with red and white stripes and white stars on a blue field are the same red, white, and blue as the Union Jack, the flag representing Great Britain, that is, the country from which we were declaring independence in the first place.  Also, the song “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” was written in 1831 by Samuel Francis Smith while a student at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, and first performed at Boston’s Park Street Church on July 4th of that year.

My country, ’tis of thee,

Sweet land of liberty,

Of thee I sing;

Land where my fathers died,

Land of the pilgrims’ pride,

From ev’ry mountainside

Let freedom ring!

Of course, we sing it to the tune of “God Save the Queen,” the national anthem of the United Kingdom.  Apparently we’re no better at coming up with original tunes for our patriotic songs than we are at coming up with original color schemes for our flag.  And for some reason we celebrate the Fourth of July, when the Declaration of Independence was supposedly signed, when in fact it seems it was probably actually signed on August 2nd, and it was on July 2nd that the Second Continental Congress voted a resolution of independence that had been proposed in June.  On July 3rd, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”  Amazingly, we do precisely all of those things, on the Fourth of July, two days after the event Adams meant to commemorate.  Oh well.

Independence is a wonderful thing, but I must confess that over the past couple of weeks my meditations and considerations have turned much more to the alternate side of the coin: dependence.  You see, on June 20th, at 5:53pm at Brigham and Women’s Hospital here in Boston, my daughter, Lilly Alma Whitney, was born, weighing 7 pounds, 2 ounces, and 20.5 inches long.  In the past couple of weeks she has more than regained her birth-weight, and she takes seeming delight in keeping my wife Holly and I from getting any sleep.  She is a bundle of joy, and I am learning an entirely new dimension of love.  It is a great joy, today, to welcome Lilly’s grandparents to the service, and particularly her grandmothers reading the lesson and the gospel.  Lilly and her mother are here too, Lilly making her church debut, likely as not sleeping through the sermon, as I am sure are many of her pew-mates.

Lilly, being a newborn infant, is entirely dependent.  She cannot eat without help attaching to her mother’s breast.  She cannot sleep without being rocked while rubbing her back.  When she poops, daddy has to clean her up and change her diaper.  Like all newborns, Lilly’s head is approximately 30-40% of her bodyweight, meaning that her neck is not strong enough to support it properly.  When we pick her up and hold her, we have to be very careful not to let her head flop forward or backward or left or right, any of which could at least prove detrimental to her ongoing development.  Lilly has a completely undeveloped immune system, so those of you who would like to greet her following the service will first have to participate in the ritual of hand-washing, employing the vat of hand sanitizer I brought with me this morning.  (Her mother is an infectious disease physician, after all).  Lilly cannot walk, or even crawl or turn herself over, so we have acquired all manner of devices to help carry her, from car seat to stroller to sling to Mobi.  Dean Hill was disappointed that we did not name her Roberta, but he perked up a bit when I pointed out that we bought a stroller named Bob.

We do of course anticipate that Lilly, over time, will achieve her own independence, but doing so is a process of us as her parents accompanying her on the journey of life and faith, not only to be independent physically, but also emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.  This movement from dependence to independence is the process of maturation.  It happens over time.  Undergraduates who will start in September at Boston University are emerging out of the process of being accompanied by parents, but still aspire on toward greater levels of independence and maturity.  College students learn to set their own alarm clocks, manage their own bank accounts, and find their own food.  A year or so later, when they move from the dorm to an apartment, they may even learn to cook that food for themselves.

It is not the case, however, that this movement from greater dependence to greater independence is ever entirely linear or ever reaches an absolute at either extreme of the spectrum.  Many young people, as their personal independence grows, discover that it can be helpful to have a partner with whom to share the responsibilities of life.   Some find such a collaborator with relative ease, while for others it can take quite some time to find someone who is appropriately dependable.  And so, every year we host myriad weddings here at Marsh Chapel, particularly in these summer months, in which people commit to one another in a life of mutual dependence, of interdependence.  Just last week the United States Supreme Court struck down key components of the Defense of Marriage Act and let stand a ruling overturning Proposition 8 in California, marking further steps toward marriage equality in these United States.  What a heartwarming juxtaposition to have such celebration of the right of so many at last to enter into relationships of mutual dependence only one week before our national celebration of independence.

The same balance between independence and dependence holds at the socio-political level as well.  It was not the case that the founding fathers sought to overthrow the tyranny of Great Britain in order to establish an absolute anarchy.  They explicitly said in the Declaration of Independence that once the old, oppressive government was overthrown, then it was incumbent upon the people to institute a new government.  So it was that the leaders of the day turned their intellectual focus to designing a new democratic government that they believed would be more dependable in enabling its citizens to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.  This is precisely what our brothers and sisters in Egypt are struggling toward as we speak.  Nevertheless, even upon the achievement of the founding fathers’ best efforts, there were some cruel restrictions on who could be considered independent in this new country.  If you did not own land, you were not independent.  If you were a woman, you were not independent.  If you were a slave, you were certainly not independent.  Yet, socially and economically, the white landowners who had supposedly achieved independence were in fact quite dependent on all of these classes of people.  So it was that A.G. Duncan wrote alternative abolitionist verses to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” only a dozen years after the original verses were penned:

My country, ’tis of thee,

Stronghold of slavery,

Of thee I sing;

Land where my fathers died,

Where men man’s rights deride,

From every mountainside

Thy deeds shall ring!

Interesting, is it not, that at the apex of the Civil Rights Movement Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted not this verse but the original to inspire the nation to end segregation?  In the end, however, it makes sense.  The original verse is a hymn to independence while the alternate is a reminder that every new achievement of independence is yet also an arising of new levels and manners of dependence.

Here, then, the theological turn.  It was the great Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher who claimed, in his monumental tome Glaubenslehre, The Christian Faith, that religion is the feeling of absolute dependence.  Religion is the feeling of absolute dependence.  Strange to think, is it not, that the great liberal American pulpits that have for so long emphasized the freedom offered for a life lived in the light of the Gospel, can all trace a lineage back to the liberal lion Schliermacher and his principle that religion is the feeling of absolute dependence?  Or perhaps not so strange that in a country that puts such high value on independence we would cast our final dependence onto one who is ultimate, infinite, and so utterly dependable.  For Schleiermacher, Christian freedom arises out of the matrix of absolute dependence on God.  This is the final outworking of Martin Luther’s insistence that experience of God for Christians is unmediated by human institutions.  We can depend directly on God, in prayer and in song and in breath, and so are free and independent from any worldly power and institution.  Or at least we would be, if we were living in the kingdom of God.

Alas, when we come back down from the mountaintop of absolute dependence, we find that we are still living in this fallen, broken world.  Our lessons today have something to teach us about living in a fallen, broken world.  In the conclusion to his letter to the Galatians, Paul is coming at the problem from the side of independence:  “All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.”  In eternity we are absolutely dependent on God, but in the present life we are responsible for ourselves, for sowing what we will in our own work.  Nevertheless, Paul indicates that we can begin to feel what it will be like to depend on God absolutely in eternity: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” and “whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”  We participate in the feeling of absolute dependence, as though seeing it through a glass dimly, as we experience interdependence, or mutual dependence, in our lives.

If Paul was approaching absolute dependence from the side of independence, Jesus, in our Gospel reading, approaches it decidedly from the side of dependence.  Over the course of the Lucan narrative, the disciples have become increasingly, persistently, and stubbornly dependent on Jesus.  Just prior to the reading we heard, many are offering to join Jesus if they can just run and take care of one more thing before they do.  But Jesus has turned his face toward Jerusalem and the passion and the cross, so he sends them out, cutting them off from their many dependencies: “Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.”  Nevertheless, the kingdom of God is announced not so much in words but by entering into relationships of interdependence, of mutual dependence, in each place the disciples go: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.”  From the side of dependence, as well, it is through interdependence in this life that we receive a foretaste of the absolute dependence on God that is a hallmark of the kingdom.

It is little wonder that so many in our world have adopted a preference for independence over dependence, making relationships that are truly interdependent that much harder to achieve.  After all, submitting to some level of dependence requires that there be a certain level of dependability in the one to whom we submit.  Alas, our human experience is that people are never quite as dependable as we would hope, and institutions seem utterly incapable of a reliable degree of reliability, made up of less than dependable people as they are.  Deplorably, there seems to be no less dependable institution in our time than the church.  How do we know this?  The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that at this point 20% of adults in the United States are religiously unaffiliated, and that number jumps to one third if considering only those under 30 years of age.  These are the so-called “nones:” not members of religious orders, but rather those who, when asked about their religious affiliation, check the box marked “none.”  It is notable that the “nones” are not so much questioning the dependability of God, as those who identify as atheist have only ticked up slightly.  Rather, they have declared independence from institutions that purport to provide the opportunity for cultivating relationships of interdependence but fail to do so.  A significantly higher percentage of the unaffiliated than the public in general believe that religious institutions are too concerned with money and power, focus too much on rules, and are too involved with politics.  At the same time, a significantly lower percentage of the unaffiliated than the general public believe that religious institutions bring people together and strengthen community bonds, play an important role in helping the poor and needy, and protect and strengthen morality.  Many churches are trying desperately to deny that they are as undependable as the “nones” claim, but the response of denial misses the point entirely.  Dependability can never be demonstrated in words, but only in actions, and the actions of too many churches belie their words.  The “nones” own experience is of the lack of dependability in the church, and insisting that the church is otherwise than their experience smacks of hubris and hypocrisy.  Whether it is financial mismanagement, exclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons, or tolerance of sexual abuse by clergy, who can blame the “nones” for disaffiliating, or demurring from ever affiliating in the first place?  In all honesty, there but for the grace of God go I, and I am convinced that at least some who do go, go with God.

In these summer weeks we are hearing from the voices that inhabit several of the most significant pulpits of northern Methodism.  I am not one of them.  I am not a Methodist, although I grew up one, and I only ever occasionally inhabit this pulpit, in the chapel of an historically Methodist university.  My role in this preaching series, then, is not to speak to Methodists or for Methodists, but rather as a finger pointing at the moon, providing some orientation as to what you might listen for in the weeks ahead.  The question that must be posed to Methodists, at least as much as to those who remain affiliated with any other religious institution, is this: How will you go about demonstrating your dependability such that you may faithfully provide a foretaste of absolute dependence on God, that is, of God’s kingdom?  How will you declare interdependence?  Amen.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go change a diaper.

~Br. Lawrence A Whitney, University Chaplain for Community Life