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~Dr. Echol Nix, Jr
Associate Professor of Religion, Furman University
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.
-Elder Joseph Brackett
Wisdom: to live is to turn. This is the wisdom cultivated by the Shakers, from whom we receive the song “Simple Gifts:” to live is to turn. Life is not lived in its fullness by rejecting the body for the spirit, but rather in turning, turning body and spirit to God.
To turn is such a simple thing. In fact, it begins in simplicity. It begins in clearing away our own strivings and yearnings and longings. Only then can we attend to and appreciate the goodness in the world around us that shows us, in turn, how to be good. To be sure, the chaff grows with the wheat, but the goodness is there, if we slow down and pause long enough to see it, if we turn toward it, and turn ourselves in response.
And yet, the gift of simplicity is so far from our late modern condition. Rather than clearing away our strivings, our yearnings, our longings to see what good might be found, we insist that our strivings, our yearnings, our longings are the good. Ideology rules the day. Awe, wonder, history, and mystery are pushed aside.
Life becomes like the vacation from hell. Piled all into the car, the family sets out, bound for swimming and hiking and canoeing and bicycling and golf. Of course, in order to make the drive all in one day, there is no time to stop. There is no time to pull off and see the view over and down through the valley, to marvel that someone born and raised in such a small cabin could rise to the presidency of the United States, or to ponder the significance of the world’s largest ball of string. In fact, the only stopping is to pump gas and take a quick bathroom break. Lunch is packed in a cooler and will be eaten in the car. The itinerary for the week is set and it is a tight squeeze. Monday will be spent swimming and lying on the beach. Tuesday is mountain climbing. Wednesday is a canoe expedition. Thursday is a bike hike. Friday is golf. And if it should rain? Well, it mustn’t. Then back in the car for a day’s drive home where the family passes out from exhaustion, needing a vacation from their vacation.
For the present generation of emerging adults, simplicity is not even pretended as a virtue, yea, does not even register. Having been raised on a steady diet of soccer practice, band rehearsal, dance lessons, community service hours, and scouting, on top of school work and chores when they were younger and a part time job as soon as they grew old enough for such not to be illegal, since they were five years old, or really four years old for a large majority, and three years old for more than a few whose parents have a particular competitiveness, the linear life has been the norm for all that they have known of it; life, that is. It is not even that soccer, band, dance, community service, scouting, school, chores, and work are understood to be goods in their own right, or even goods for the sake of developing a well-rounded person. No, the ethic is that we must be so overcommitted, overworked, overbooked, and overwhelmed in order to get into college, get a job, get married, build a home, have children, and start the whole process over again. Most recently, it is not even the case that many parents aspire for their children to get into a top-tier college and then get a high-powered job. That might be nice, but really getting into any college at all would be an accomplishment and getting a job that pays more than minimum wage would be enough of an achievement. Our imaginations, our hopes, our dreams about what life can be, should be, might be are reduced to the aspiration to subsist, and we are paranoid that even in the wake of all of that striving, we might not.
What would it look like to turn? What would it look like to abandon the linear narrative, embrace simplicity, appreciate the world around us, apprehend the good inherent there, align our lives with the grain of the universe? What good news might there be for emerging adults to abandon this mindset, and what good news might there be from emerging adults for both subsequent generations, and perhaps even their elders?
To begin with, we will need to grapple with the fact that emerging adults are doing just that. They are emerging. Most frequently the concept of “emerging adulthood” is simply a category to describe 18-25 year olds who are no longer adolescents but whom we are not quite sure we really want to consider full-fledged adults just yet. It may do us some good, however, to worry this concept just a bit, to introduce some nuance, some complexity, and to do so by meandering across Commonwealth Avenue and taking a stroll down Cummington Mall to pay a visit to our neighbors in the natural sciences.
Emergence in the scientific community is a technical term for describing the process by which smaller, simpler things, when put together in the right relationships and under the right conditions, become bigger, more complex things, except that the bigger, more complex thing has properties that none of the smaller, simpler things had. This is to say that the full reality of the higher order thing could not have been predicted from an analysis of the lower order things that make it up. For example, the full reality of a human person with awareness, language, reason, complex emotional states, purpose, and many more qualities cannot be predicted from the cells, organs, and systems that make up human physiology. Furthermore, it is not merely that the higher order thing, such as a human person, cannot be predicted simply due to a lack of fully understanding human physiology. Rather, the unpredictability is there in principle. Emergence denies the viability of a strict determinism. Emergence is a messy process. Putting things together in the same pattern in the same environment sometimes does not generate the emergent property. And sometimes it generates a different emerging property than the last time those things were put together in that pattern in that environment.
This is good news for emerging adults! The life that you are emerging from does not determine your life as a whole. Soccer plus band plus dance plus community service plus scouting plus school plus chores plus work does not equal your life. There is freedom to become more than the sum of your parts. You are not destined to become a doctor or a lawyer or a concert pianist simply because your parents put you on what they thought was the track to becoming such. Just ask Cordaro Rodriguez. He graduated from the Boston University School of Law, passed the bar, and gave up on the challenging legal market to pursue his passion for music with three other BU alumni in Sons of Serendip, which is competing this season on America’s Got Talent. Emergence is a turning from the limits of what must be to the power and potential of what can yet become.
Just as emerging adults are emerging, so too are they developing. “In [Christ Jesus] the whole structure [of the household of God] is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” Emerging adults are growing, are changing, are developing.
What John Henry Newman said about the development of ideas may just as well apply to the development of persons:
“But whatever be the risk of corruption from intercourse with the world around, such a risk must be encountered if a great idea [or person] is duly to be understood, and much more if it is to be fully exhibited. It is elicited and expanded by trial, and battles into perfection and supremacy. Nor does it escape the collision of opinion even in its earlier years, nor does it remain truer to itself, and with a better claim to be considered one and the same, though externally protected from vicissitude and change. It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief [or person], which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and for a time savours of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary, and is employed in efforts after freedom which become more vigorous and hopeful as its years increase. Its beginnings are no measure of its capabilities, nor of its scope. At first no one knows what it is, or what it is worth. It remains perhaps for a time quiescent; it tries, as it were, its limbs, and proves the ground under it, and feels its way. From time to time it makes essays which fail, and are in consequence abandoned. It seems in suspense which way to go; it wavers, and at length strikes out in one definite direction. In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and fall around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
What, you missed that last line? I’ll repeat it. “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
Engaged, as they are, then, in such a process of development, should we be surprised that emerging adults buck and bite at the chafing of the linear narrative of life?
In his New York Times op-ed last week entitled “Why Teenagers are Crazy,” Richard Friedman of Weill Cornell Medical College notes that both the reward center of the brain and the region that processes fear are overdeveloped in adolescents and emerging adults. The result is simultaneously a tendency toward “risk taking, emotional drama and all forms of outlandish behavior,” and a surge in “anxiety and fearfulness.” The linear narrative of life provokes the former, and reinforces the latter. To turn is to take a few risks and to simplify is to ameliorate fear and anxiety.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.
Elder Joseph Brackett may have known something about emerging adulthood.
Christian Smith claims to know something about emerging adulthood. He and his colleagues who wrote Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood are deeply concerned by the moral relativism, acceptance of the socio-economic status quo, routine intoxication, ambiguity about sexual relationships, and political apathy they find among emerging adults.
It is notable that the standard against which Smith and his colleagues are measuring emerging adults is precisely the linear narrative of life. Given that emerging adulthood is actually a time of emergence and development, however, it seems that a substantial proportion of the beliefs and behaviors they find so concerning should be expected in people who have overdeveloped reward and fear processing centers resulting in anxiety, fearfulness, risk taking, emotional drama, and all forms of outlandish behavior, all of which are provoked and reinforced by the linear narrative Smith and friends are measuring them against.
Maybe rather than bemoaning the reality of emerging adulthood, we should place some hope in what emerging adults have to teach us. After all, anxiety, fearfulness, risk taking, and emotional drama, under the right conditions, can emerge into something quite fruitful, that being doubt. The first thing that emerging adults are likely to doubt is themselves. Of course, many measure themselves against the linear narrative that no one could possibly actually achieve anyway and that is wildly inappropriate to begin with, so how could they do anything but doubt themselves? Many emerging adults doubt the value, efficacy, and viability of political and civic institutions. But then, don’t we all? Congress has an approval rating of 7%, for goodness sake! Religious leaders are no better, all too often continuing to exclude women, demean people of color, and excoriate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. Emerging adults may not yet have a coherent moral framework, but they sure do know what they consider immoral! Small wonder, then, that so many emerging adults look out on the socio-political landscape and despair, resigning themselves to what little happiness they can find in their little corner.
‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,’ said Thomas. Thomas was clearly an emerging adult. He had every reason to doubt. Jesus had been crucified, died, and was buried. After touching Jesus’ hands and his side, Thomas said, ‘My Lord and my God!’ He experienced what was possible. It may yet be that emerged adults will manage to show emerging adults what is possible today, but I find myself siding with the emerging adults and doubting any such expectation. Rather, emerging adults are left in the position of those who would come after Thomas, of those who would come after Jesus ascended. ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ Blessed are those who have not seen and yet still dream and enact new realities.
To doubt. To develop. To emerge. To turn. There is good news regarding emerging adulthood here if we are willing to listen for it. Measured against the standard of a linear narrative of life, doubt, development, emergence, and turning will never measure up. The unit of measure is inappropriate. The appropriate unit of measure is not a line but a dance. Step, roll, clap, turn.
Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.
And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be,
and I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.
Both the hymn that opened our service and the hymn we are about to sing depict the meaning and significance of Jesus’ life as a dance. Jesus was born and laid in a manger. He developed and was baptized by the Holy Spirit and the voice of God. Jesus was tempted, doubted, and overcame to return to the dance. He emerged as a prophet, a healer, a savior, beyond any and all ability to predict. Jesus turned to hell and returned to heaven.
Jesus was an emerging adult. In Jesus is the hope of resurrection. Jesus leads us in the dance of life and into the general dance of eternity.
And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be,
and I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.
~Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+
University Chaplain for Community Life
(singing) It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?
It’s hard not to admire Mr. Rogers—a champion for children’s learning, a cardigan wearer, a Presbyterian minister (well, nobody’s perfect). But perhaps his most lasting contribution to the world will forever be his theme song.
Not because it ever hit the top of the charts or because of the brilliance of his voice, but kind of the opposite of that. You see, in 1968, when his show began what would be a 33 year run, the country was at war, young people were disenchanted with authority, and recent victories in civil rights had been answered by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the flight of middle class whites to the suburbs.
In other words, at a time in which people were literally struggling with who should be allowed in their neighborhoods, Fred Rogers found a way to invite people into his with a simple, radical, Christian request: Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?
It was a reminder of that gospel truth that no matter crazy this world gets, we don’t have to face it alone.
And although the times have changed, friends, the struggle has not.
For as much as we talk about technology and media bringing us closer together, we still live in a world that works very hard to keep us apart: young and old, black and white, gay and straight, male and female, rich and poor, broken and whole.
We live in a world that covets community, but insists on isolation. And our young people have noticed.
If we’re honest, we know that many contemporary young people, the same young people who grew up accepting Mr. Roger’s near daily invitation are just as disenchanted today as they were then. They’re just as frustrated by the hypocrisies of the world today as they were forty years ago.
And frankly, the church has not helped. Over and over again, today’s young people have heard the church fail to answer that quintessential Christian question “Who is my neighbor?” Nowhere has this failure been felt more keenly than in our treatment of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Today’s young people have heard us exclude instead of include, speak instead of listen, choose law over love.
We complain that young people have no faith, but the truth is, we haven’t given them much to have faith in.
But the good news is that we believe in a God of grace, which means that despite our imperfections, despite our failures, our fractures, our faults, there’s always hope.
And so today, as we consider together what the gospel possibly has to say to today’s emerging adults, we begin by acknowledging our failures and recommitting to the basics.
Our story today is one of the most famous in all of Scripture: the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s only told in Luke and involves a lawyer approaching Jesus with a question.
Now we don’t know much about the lawyer in our story. Actually, basically nothing beyond the fact that Luke tells us he was a lawyer and a “he.” But let’s imagine for a moment that he was young, maybe just out of law school. Perhaps he was like so many young people today who finish their formal schooling, enter the job market, and pray that when the six month grace period on their student loans ends…they won’t have to move back in with their parents.
Maybe like so many young people today he’s found a job but is still getting used to not getting summer breaks or winter breaks, or breaks at all.
Maybe he’s been working for a year or two and starting to wonder “Is this it?”
In our story, the young lawyer asks Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
It’s a pretty honest question. How do I find life? It’s a question we all ask from time to time.
And frankly, perhaps the only difference between this young lawyer and many of the young adults today is that he thought his religious leaders might actually have an answer.
Fortunately for him, he was right.
Jesus responds, “What is written in the law?”
And the young lawyer gives the answer he had no doubt learned in school, the one that his parents, his teachers, his synagogue taught him. He says, “You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
And Jesus responds simply, “You have given the right answer. Do this and you will live.”
“You have given the right answer. Do this and you will live.”
The word used for “right” in the Greek is orthos, from which we get the term “orthodox.” In other words, Jesus is saying, you have given the right answer, the orthodox answer, the approved answer, and if you do this, you will live. Right now, in the present tense. You will live. But he undoubtedly knew the real question the lawyer was asking: How?
On our answer hangs every decision of life. Most of us know that we are called to love God and to love our neighbor, but if we’re honest, we don’t always know what that means. Despite what we are sometimes led to believe, it’s not as if in every situation there is a clear choice between loving God and not, between loving our neighbor and not, a simple right or wrong, No! It doesn’t work that way. Whether we like it or not, things are not always black and white. There is a lot of gray in our faith…at least fifty shades of it.
Sure, sometimes our choice is clear, loving our neighbor rarely means killing them, but often times being a person of faith means struggling with confusing and often contradictory choices, both of which can be justified from the Scripture or the tradition of our faith.
In other words, friends, sometimes being a person of faith means moving beyond Scripture or tradition in order to use that that other God given gift – our brains. A gift that young people have too often witnessed people of faith checking at the door.
Perhaps Luke was offering his readers, and in turn us, a way forward; freedom from the law which threatens to imprison us. Not necessarily an easier way, but certainly one that is more honest. Instead of leaving it here like the other gospels, the lawyer in Luke’s gospel asks a follow up question: “And who is my neighbor?”
“Who is my neighbor?” Was there ever a more honest question asked in the entire gospel? Who is my neighbor? Who are the people we’re called to love?
And Luke could have had Jesus respond in any number of ways. After all, there were no other gospel accounts to refute him, but instead of quoting more Scripture, or giving a map with neighborhoods highlighted, or pointing to specific people— instead of offering a black and white answer, Luke has Jesus tell a story that to this very day is open to interpretation. A story that requires our brains.
Jesus says that a man was beaten and stripped by robbers and left half dead on the side of the road. An act that would have removed any means of identification, whether social or religious. When we are naked and half-dead on the side of the road, one can’t tell if we are rich or poor, free or slave, Jew or Greek, gay or straight. In other words, this man was just a person in need.
And by chance a priest came walking by. Now, had this been our first time hearing the story, we might think, “Ah! A priest! Surely he will help.” But when he sees the man, he crosses over and passes by on the other side of the road. Then we see a Levite, and again, he sees the man and passes by on the other side of the road.
And while we’re scratching our heads trying to wrap our minds around why these two religious leaders didn’t stop, a Samaritan spotted the man and was moved with pity. So, he bandaged his wounds, poured oil and wine on them, placed him on his animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii – equal to a day’s wage each– gave them to the innkeeper and told him to take care of him and that whatever else is spent he would repay upon his return. In other words, he didn’t just stop. He STOPPED! He stepped away from the routine, from the busyness, from the expectations of life long enough to show this man love.
Now, we knew that was going to happen, we’ve heard the story before, but we should remember the shock value for both the young lawyer in the story and the original audience for Luke’s gospel.
You see, a Samaritan, was a person hated by the Jewish people of first century Palestine. The Samaritans were people who had interbred with their Assyrian captors 800 years earlier and they had never been allowed to forget it.
It would be as if a member of Al Queda was the one to stop and lend a hand where no one else had dared. So for the lawyer in the story and the audience of Luke, this story would have been unbelievable and more than slightly disturbing. Jesus was telling a story in which their enemy was the one to offer more care than their religious leaders.
And to be fair to the religious leaders who passed by, they had justification. After all, they had Scripture on their side. They had interpreted the canonical law correctly, their bible, and part of ours too, says that it is sinful to come into contact with a half dead man. It was sinful for them to come in contact with the man in need and so they went with orthodoxy over common sense; they went with orthodoxy over mercy, they went with orthodoxy over love.
And we get it. After all, we do the same thing today. We allow a couple of obscure verses of scripture to trump our common sense.
And in case there was any room for confusion, Luke has Jesus say to the young lawyer, “which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” To which the lawyer responds, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
Go and do likewise. Friends, this young man came to Jesus wanting to know the meaning of life. He wanted to know the way to fullness of life. And though he had been trained enough to know that love is the answer, he didn’t know what it looked like.
Jesus told a story that reminded him that the way to life abundant isn’t about chaining ourselves to the law, to the rules that we follow through life like a map, it’s about taking time to care for those around us, to show mercy. It’s about investing in community, not in general, but in particular. As Howard Thurman said, we don’t love in the abstract, we love in the concrete. We love in community, and when we have a question, we ought to err on the side of love.
Friends, when we allow our understanding of what is “right” or “orthodox,” or “Scriptural” to get in the way of our common sense of mercy for our brothers and sisters in this world, we miss the point of the gospel.
When I was in thirteen, my home church in Kansas hosted an AIDS conference. It was a big deal at that time and our newly elected United Methodist Bishop, came to participate in the conference and to talk with some of the youth about the challenges surrounding AIDS.
While he was chatting to us, a person came in and whispered a message in his ear. When the person left, the Bishop turned to us teenagers and said, “There is a man who is on his way here from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka.” –a church that some here might know from their protests in recent years at military funerals– He told us that this church will be on the other side of the street when we left that day and that they would most likely holding up signs condemning our church.
Then the Bishop paused and said, “I had two gay sons who died of AIDS, and as we were burying them, that man was shouting at their graveside, your sons are burning in hell.”
And then he said, “I want you to know, there is another way to be a Christian.”
Friends, what today’s young people don’t often hear is that there’s another way to be a Christian.
There are people in our world, our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters among them who are in need of mercy, of love, of care, and the church keeps moving to the other side of the road.
And whether we realize it or not, we have an audience. People, young and old, are watching us and wondering how we can proclaim the gospel of love and continue to ignore people right in front of us.
In this story, we see Jesus pointing, as he does throughout his ministry, to the one who wasn’t concerned with the law, but with grace. Friends, even if we have questions, we are called to err on the side of love.
Perhaps the lesson of the good Samaritan for us as Christians, and for the church as a whole, is that we should never be shown up in our love.
And when we are, it is time to re-evaluate our faith.
And so, we are left with the basic question of this sermon series. What does the gospel have to offer to today’s emerging adults? The same thing it has to offer each of us: Life. Real Life. Full life. A life which promises that no matter how hard things get, no matter how crazy, how isolating, how demanding this world becomes, we are not alone.
In other words, a life of love.
And while it can be confusing to know how to find it, we might do well to follow the example of Mr. Rogers and begin every relationship by asking, “Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?” Amen.
~The Rev. Dr. Stephen Cady, II
Pastor, Asbury First UMC, Rochester, NY
How fun it is today to be lead-off batter in the summer preaching series, with Dean Hill’s choice theme of “the Gospel and Emerging Adulthood.” I’m going to take a swing at this first pitch and see if I can get us on base with my sermon title, which I boldly borrow from Kathleen Fannin’s book title, “Wonder and Other Life Skills.” Fannin, who is a college chaplain, writes about creating spiritual life retreats for young adults.
WONDER. I’m tempted to say it’s a Wonderful word, but you know we ought not be redundant in our definitions. WONDER As a noun: “A feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected.” As a verb, “to be curious to know something.” Or better yet, WONDER as the reality of all life- as Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings….Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.”
Let’s name WONDER as a quality gifted us by emerging adults. It’s one of the reasons why I love being in ministry with young adults; they have yet to leave behind the beauty of “childlike wonder”; they are curious and open to learn; they haven’t yet developed the protective exoskeleton of cynicism some already emerged adults have grown. Let’s name today that we can all learn from young adults, and that indeed our very walk of Gospel discipleship has one persistent demand on us- that we are receptive. Receptive to wonder. That we keep our hearts and minds open to the presence of the divine all around us, and within us…. in short that we cultivate the life skill of wonder.
Pause a moment to ask What exactly is Emerging Adulthood? Whatever happened to being an adolescent and then a grown up? Sociologists advance that Emerging Adulthood is actually a new developmental stage, one identified as part of a post-modern coming of age reality. A stage post-adolescence and pre-adulthood, generally identified as the years between 18-29. And it is interwoven with characteristics of the Millennial Generation-our current population of emerging adults.
Janjay Innis, a recent graduate of the BU STH, a young 20 something who is off taking the world by storm in mission work, spoke at the NE AC UMC last week- she said “in spite of staggering statistics about Church decline and the claims that Millennials are disengaged with the Church, God has raised up a new generation of young people who are seeking and asking questions about how faith calls them to be about the work of justice, peace, reconciliation, and love. This is Gospel.”
In the Gospel lesson that spoke to me for this day, Jesus teaches us how to engage the world. Jesus tells us to put on His yoke, to choose to walk with him tethered to the holy perspective of freedom and wonder. To walk together, linked shoulder to shoulder along a route that he promises we’ll figure out together. And you will see dedication of service and love of selfie and love for neighbor in such a wonderful way.
The first time I saw an actual yoke happened to be in my own emerging adulthood years. I was a brave 22 year old, and I had just loaded up my backpack to live a year on my own in Israel, learning Hebrew on a kibbutz, milking cows in Hebrew- I don’t know how to do it in English- pulling the 5 am shift in the milking parlor. I was a NYC suburban kid enamored of farm life. I still have the scar, faint now on my finger, given to me by the first cow I ever milked. She didn’t like my unskilled touch so she stomped on my hand. I learned to welcome the metal bar yoke of restraint that my kibbutznik partner taught me to apply. It settled my bovine friends and allowed us to work together in the land of flowing milk and honey.
More commonly a yoke is used to link 2 working animals side by side – often oxen- so they can focus on the path intended for them. With heads directed forward, the crossbar rests on their shoulders, distributing some of the weight of the pull of the plow or burden of the wagon. In Biblical metaphor, a yoke is a most often a symbol of servitude, of being harnessed to a life of toil.
But if you know anything about our friend Jesus, you know he is apt to invert metaphors, to Wake Up our settled assumptions so we might be receptive to wonder. Jesus rebukes the established generation of religious folks who act is if they know it all and yet… they cannot recognize John the Baptizer as a messenger of the kingdom of God- to them he is an ascetic nut job who wears weird clothes and eats weird food. They cannot recognize Jesus as the Son of God – to them he is a rule breaker who likes to wine and dine with the wrong sort of people. Jesus says these already emerged people are really like babies- they don’t get it. Perhaps it will be the ones who are not so impressed with organized religion who will truly see him.
Hear Eugene Peterson’s lovely interpretation of our Gospel. Jesus says, in Matthew 11:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
On this first weekend of summer, doesn’t that sound like the most wonderful invitation: to recover our lives? To learn the unforced rhythms of grace. Here in Boston, let’s face it – the historic epicenter of the Puritan Work ethic – Jesus offers us a way forward in centered peace. Let’s hear a witness to the gospel keeping company and living freely with emerging adults.
I met Bethany Printup-Davis through my previous appointment as the Protestant Chaplain at Nazareth College in Rochester NY. Bethany grew up on a Tuscarora Indian Reservation near Buffalo, she attended a church off reservation and was particularly fond of singing in the choir. She was an enthusiastic undergrad who came to our Sunday evening Protestant Worship services. These services that in my first semester drew a not-so-enthusiastic crowd of 4 or 5. And 2 of us were paid to be in attendance- myself and the undergrad piano player. The College was founded as a Catholic all women’s school, but had been independent and co-educational for 3 decades. However, the legacy of Catholicism reverberated, and every Sunday night I waited as pew after pew of Catholic students poured out of the Chapel from evening Mass, galvanized by a specific religious tradition. Then my little flock entered the Chapel for our service. I found that while my students were keen to explore their spirituality, and to offer their lives to make a difference, they had minimal introduction to religious tradition. And they called themselves “the not-Catholic kids.”
And so I started to introduce them to wonders of Protestant churches. I began by bringing students to a national gathering organized by United Methodist college students. And 2 wonderful things happened for Bethany Printup-Davis at a gathering in Shreveport Louisiana.
First, the keynote speaker was Dr. Eboo Patel, a sociologist of religion, a devout American Muslim from Chicago by way of family of origin in India. Eboo Patel, the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, spoke eloquently to us about our Wesleyan heritage. He detailed the mission of John and Charles Wesley and enumerated the beauty of Methodism. He urged that the best way to be a fully engaged citizen and a full partner in interfaith cooperation is to know your own faith story.
Second, the music leaders were all Native Americans, taking the stage and leading us in songs with cadence of drumbeat and dancestep of ancient practice. My young friend Bethany sat in the front pew, as close as possible to the music. And she wept. Grace flowed down her cheeks. Later she told me “Robin, I had no idea that I could unite my Native identity with my Christian identity. I thought they had to be separate.”
The next year Bethany was up there on the stage- a leader in the music ministry. She went on to take a Confirmation Class with me, to be baptized and welcomed into the UMC though our Campus ministry. I saw her a few weeks ago as she led a Workshop for some 500 churches on Native American awareness. Professionally she is a District educator for Native American cultural competencies, and is discerning a call to ministry. She is as enthusiastic as ever, attributing her joy to walking with Christ in wonder of identity.
My friend Micah Christian is a young man with a big and brave vision for being Church out in the world. I’ve journeyed alongside him the past several years on a path that has taken him through Spiritual Life practices in seminary to baptism and confirmation in the Catholic Church to a year of service in Peru with his wife Jocelyn, to expressing beauty and faith through music. Perhaps you are one of 11.5 million people who watched him perform a couple weeks ago with his quartet “Sons of Serendip” on America’s Got Talent. All 4 members of the band are recent BU grads- having earned degrees in law, theology, and music. At their audition they received a standing ovation. The judges- one of whom – Howard Stern – is a proud BU alumnus, were in rather stunned awe. Many in the crowd of thousands at Madison Square Garden and those of us huddled around TV sets cried for the beauty of it. Their harp, cello, keyboard and vocals transported us.
I first learned about Micah’s new band on the last Saturday of the semester, when he approached me on Marsh Plaza. I was in midst leading a Study Retreat for students, and we had brought the labyrinth Brother Larry and students made some years ago out onto the Plaza. A whole variety of folks came by and walked the labyrinth – this ancient Christian practice now embraced by just about every spiritual tradition I know as a tool for centering. Students of engineering, law, management, fine arts…a family on their way to a Red Sox game, 3 fraternity brothers rushing to a big event, 2 girl scout troops… they all stopped to walk in peace. The engineers were the most suspicious. “It’s a maze, right? It’s a trick for me to solve, right?” “No,” I said “there is no trick, and the meaning isn’t found in external analysis. You just have to get in there and start walking, trusting that you will be led to your center.” And so they did.
As Micah and I chatted around the perimeter of the labyrinth he told about this crazy, unexpected America’s Got Talent ride with the band. He had just come from a rehearsal on campus. While he could not tell me anything about the results of the audition, sworn by Producers to secrecy, (we know now they advanced!) He told me about fans waiting at the stage door, autographs requested, the pull and push of the glittery world of reality TV. And his desire, his burning deep desire to stay centered in the soul of the music and the soul of the friendship in the band. To stay centered in integrity- so that everything he said and sang and did might reflect his calling to live as a follower of Christ.
He was on his way to see his Spiritual Director, and thanked me for sharing the labyrinth because “so many of us struggle to stay centered.”
Researchers at UCLA have a longitudinal study on Emerging Adults and Spirituality. They conclude that there is a positive correlation between spirituality and well-being. While the highly spiritual students were by no means exempt from the significant stresses of collegiate life, they were also able to exhibit a high level of Equanimity. .. the qualities of being able to find meaning in times of hardship and feeling at peace and centered.
Micah, Kendall, Cordara, and Mason: Sons of Serendip, from the heart of your campus at BU, we wish you every joy and success.
Young adults witness to me just about every week the sentiment of Anne Frank, who wrote, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” They get inspired and they get going. Caitlin Schultz and Lyndsey Seeley Fellows attended a national campus ministry event, and came back to the Nazareth campus with hearts strangely warmed by the Church’s impact on malaria prevention in Africa. They said, “Robin we are going to raise $1000 to donate to the Nothing But Nets campaign, to send treated bed nets to Africa, because they are so effective in saving lives. We have this idea to partner with the Men’s basketball team, because they have nets.” Apparently my exoskeleton of doubt had developed because I did not match their enthusiasm. “But we are a small group, we don’t know anyone on the basketball team, actually we don’t know any athletes, and I’m just not sure that’s a realistic project.” And then they called me to WAKE UP! “Robin if you are not going to help us, you can at least get out of our way.” And you bet I joined them –as they put on the yoke of service to the world. Over the next 2 years they raised $3000, with hundreds of students and faculty and staff from all over campus participating. And our little group of “not Catholic kids” gave themselves a new name as they multiplied in numbers and confidence and spirit. They called themselves “The Little Church That Could.”
And, finally, I share a story about the yoke of accompaniment.
Demarius Walker is soon to graduate from BU. He’s a philosopher and deep thinker and kind soul who loves to dive deep into conversations that matter. He’s the leader of our Howard Thurman discussion group here at Marsh. He participated at one of our recent Study retreats as we ended the long, productive day by gathering here in the sanctuary at 10 pm. Turned out all the lights, and walked up to balcony by candlelight to reflect on the day in the shared company of friendship and prayer. Demarius lingered, absorbing the tranquility of the stillness, the silence, the flickering of light. Afterwards he shared a story with me.
He told me that one time during the winter, very late at night, he wandered across campus and found himself at Marsh Chapel. He was slightly surprised to find the front door open. He came in. Something compelled him in, down the center aisle of the sanctuary. All the lights were off, except for the solitary light that illuminates the face of Christ on our chancel. It was a moment of sheer awe for him, and he stopped in his tracks midway. He could not go further. Then he sensed a companion. He looked over and there stood David Soper, our Marsh sexton and steward extraordinaire of this block of Comm Ave. Now, Demarius wasn’t sure he was supposed to be in the middle of the sanctuary in the middle of the night, and he was getting a little nervous in front of this man in an official BU uniform. But before he had a chance to give explanation David spoke, “Beautiful isn’t it?” as they both gazed at the illuminated Christ. Then, David turned and left.
I followed up with David, and asked for his recollection of the night. He said, “Oh sure I came in early, probably 3 am or so, to get a head start on clearing all the snow on the Plaza. It was a nice quiet moment to share together.”
Friends, we are called –young and old and in between – to accompany one another in this wondrous journey. Let’s step into the summer with Rachel Carson, pioneer environmentalist from Maine, who wrote, “If a young person is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder…she needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” Let’s walk together in the unforced rhythms of grace.
~The Rev. Dr. Robin Olson
Breakfast and Wonder
This morning, Trinity Sunday and Father’s Day, along with our hearing of Matthew and of Paul in Corinthians, we shall meditate fully upon our Psalm, one one-hundred and fiftieth part of our holy Psalter. As we prepare to enjoy a summer to nourish the body, may we in prayer also nourish the soul, with a soulful summer menu of meditation!
Behold, a daily spiritual soulful summer menu!
As day breaks you may find yourself rubbing eyes against the gleam of sunlight. Before you is a bowl for breakfast. Cereal covered with luscious raspberries. This summer, will you begin the day with soul, too? The soul responds to God’s “wonderful works to humankind”. Summer is our time to nourish again our relationships. With neighbor. With family. With nature. With soul. Pause again, spoon suspended over berry and bran, pause. What has been the most wonderful day in your life so far? Think about that day, that hour, for a moment at breakfast. Experience. Your experience.
As the great Boston Personalist Borden Parker Bowne wrote long ago, “Let us be determined to protect the independence and the variety of experience”.
All of life is a gift. “O Lord who grants me life, grant me also a soul filled with wonder”.
Coffee and Acceptance
With a few hours behind you, the day may open up for a break. Coffee and a fresh baked muffin, raspberry sweet. A little butter. As we enjoy a summer to nourish the body, may we in prayer also, with the Psalmists, nourish the soul, with a soulful menu of meditation. To vacation is to vacate. To open, empty, cleanse, change. A few hours of morning labor, and a few years of mixed experience, bring a need for pause.
We are nourished by this extended and expansive community of faith, Marsh Chapel. One of our regular listeners is the founder of the Anacapa School in Southern California. Gordon brought his students here on Tuesday, as part of their tour of Boston. They are part of our extended family, 3000 miles away.
Our community is shaped, 90%, by its lay members and leaders. This summer let us ask ourselves: ‘what kind of community would this be if every one were just like me?’ The summer asks us to ask ourselves: how shall I most faithfully be disciplined in worship, on the Lord’s Day, and in prayer, on every day?
We are people of faith, gathered in a community of faith. That does not mean that we are spared the bruises and hurts and tragedies that inexplicably lie embedded in life. I take cup and roll to the lips and I pause to remember those unforeseen and unexplained midnights. The night of a life taken. The night of an illness discovered. The night of betrayal. I know the lament, the anger of these people in the Psalms, “they cried to the Lord in their trouble.” In thirty years of ministry, the most common response to the question, ‘where did your faith come from’, begins with the single word, ‘trouble’. We can usually find something earthly or someone human to judge and blame, when things go wrong. Except when the unfairness swells into injustice, when the harm happens to the innocent, when the lightning strikes close to home, or at home. Then we cry…to the Lord.
In trouble we reach for faith. We remember that faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand. We remember that weeping may tarry for the night, even as joy comes with the morning. We remember that the extent of possibilities always outruns our grasp and count. We remember that we hope for what we do not see. We remember what the Psalmists taught, as do the Gospels: that your experience of dislocation can be a doorway to grace, that your experience of disappointment is the very portal to freedom, that your experience of departure is the threshold of love.
As Bonhoeffer affirmed, ‘man has come of age’, through the Renaissance, through the Reformation, through the Enlightenment and through the progress of human autonomy, human freedom into our own time. “God lets us know that we must live as men who can manage our lives without God. The God who is with us is the God who leaves us alone. Before God and with God we live without God.”
But we still lament. Finish that muffin. Which was the day of your biggest unanswered question? Assuming there is no ready answer, for real and big questions seldom afford easy spoken answers, can you accept that silence?
Lunch and Thanksgiving
A simple lunch. Soup, peanut butter and jam (raspberry). There are times when the summer songs suffice. We sang in church camp: Count your many blessings, count them one by one.
We remember the Polish poet who was sent to Siberia for half a lifetime. He returned. How did he survive? He remembered the kindnesses. Over lunch, now. The day is half-gone. Think with thanks. Ten lepers were healed. One spoke in appreciation. Think with thanksgiving. We all receive more than we deserve. Seeing a fallen bird, Asher Lev asks his Father why God lets the living die: “to remind us that life is precious; something you have without limit is never precious”.
Bonhoeffer, again: “The Christian hope of resurrection sends man back to his life on earth in a completely new way. The Christian must like Christ give himself to the earthly life”. Take heart. “The future bears the face of Christ”
Make a list. For what are you truly thankful? In this Psalm, as in so much of the Bible, thanks is given for deliverance, for freedom, for redemption. On what day did you experience some measure of liberty? When we are thankful, grateful, appreciative, then we have good humor, and then we have generous habits, and then we have soul. Here is the heart of the hymn: “O give thanks to the Lord, for the Lord is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever.”
Dinner and Compassion
Before you now is the main meal of the day. Salad. Meat. Bread. Fruit, a mixture—berries to be sure.
As this summer nourishes our relationships, let us pause before the heart of life (as of Scripture and church and faith). “Steadfast love”. Pardon, begin with pardon. Forgiveness, begin with forgiveness. Compassion, begin with compassion. Can you name a day on which you felt, or knew, or received, or relied on compassion? Think at dinner. Sharing the fruit, sharing the memory of forgiveness. Life is a gift. Eternal life is a gift. Faith is a gift. Forgiveness, offered or received, is a gift. Think in simple terms here. And pray so, too.
A man arrives at the pearly gates. His interlocutor says, “Entry, 100 points”. How am I to find 100pts, our man asks? “Tell me about yourself”. Well, once I helped a woman across the street. “Excellent, one point. Anything else?” Well, once I went to church and gave what I thought was a generous gift. “Excellent, that’s two.” Now our man is worried. He says to the gate keeper: “At his rate, I will never get in. I won’t make it. I won’t have enough points. I’d only get in by the grace of God. “Grace of God! 98 points. Grace of God. Excellent. Just so. Quite right. You’re in.”
Be kind to one another. Tenderhearted. Forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven you. Or, as Myles Davis said, and he should know, ‘there is no such thing as a wrong note’.
Dessert and Satisfaction
Who can go to sleep on an empty stomach? In the evening, in the summer, a little ice cream with berries (raspberries) goes a long way.
What little measure of satisfaction, a hunger filled, a thirst slaked, a longing fulfilled, what day of satisfaction have you known? There is some satisfaction in every life. Just as every heart has secret sorrow, every heart has some satisfaction. “He satisfies the thirsty and the hungry he fills with good things.” Can we be satisfied with what is good?
You did what you could do in a time of struggle. Good for you! You brought real kindness to a hurting parent, or child. Good for you! You sought to name the good things in a time of real tragedy. Good for you! You found a way in the wilderness. Good for you!
From Marsh Chapel often you hear a vocation voice. One graduate of 2014, who was in this nave for baccalaureate just four weeks ago, is now in the desert. She wrote this week:
For the past three weeks, I have been doing field research in three refugee camps in northern Jordan. I am looking at the lives of children in the camps, how they respond to and are shaped by their circumstances. It has been a life-changing experience so far, and I have learned so much from their opportunism and optimism. I’m sure you’ve heard references to the refugee youth as members of a “lost generation.” I’m really starting to dislike this defeatist term. While they are certainly facing great obstacles that we couldn’t possibly imagine, “lost” implies that they have given up and that the global community has given up on them. However, these children have so much passion, energy, and hope for the future.
Each day I hear heart-breaking stories, but at the end of the day, I always finish by reading a few of Thurman’s “Meditations of the Heart”. Yesterday, I read “Magic all Around Us” and thought it perfectly expressed the attitude of many of the Syrian children that I’ve been spending my days with:
“When have you noticed the color in the sky? When have you looked at the shape and place of a tree? What about the light in the eyes of your friend when he smiles…The spontaneous response which overcomes you when you are face to face with some poignant human need?…’There’s magic all around us./ In the rocks and trees, and in the minds of men,/ Deep hidden springs of magic./ He who strikes the rock aright, may find them where he will./ I seek new levels of awareness/ of the meaning of the commonplace.”
Please send my regards to Jan and please keep these children and their families in your thoughts and prayers. I look forward to seeing you both at the end of the summer.
Evening is no time for meditating on the mistakes. It is a time, with our dear student in the desert, for meditation of the good. By perfection, Matthew and Wesley meant health not precision, wholeness not fastidiousness. Here is the thought for ice cream and raspberries. What has satisfied you?
Here is a summer menu, a mode of thought, based on ancient Psalm.
Breakfast is for wonder, coffee break for acceptance, lunch for thanksgiving, dinner for compassion, and the evening snack for satisfaction!
A summer menu.
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring. I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away. And wait to watch the water clear, I may. I shan’t be gone long. You come too.
“Let those who are wise give heed to these things, and consider the steadfast love of the Lord.”
Breakfast is for wonder, coffee break for acceptance, lunch for thanksgiving, dinner for compassion, and the evening snack for satisfaction!
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
Perhaps you too were arrested by the moving and powerful remembrances offered this week, seventy years later, for June 6, 1944. This week we have heard again about those young men on Omaha Beach and elsewhere we gave so much for the common good, whose sacrificial martial action was offered for the common good. Perhaps you found in such retrospective as we have had these last few days, an emotional upsurge, a spiritual shower, a reckoning with history and duty, an infusion of spirit. There is a gospel echo here.
Spiritual gifts are meant for the common good.
Those who began the practice of ministry in the 1970’s officiated at many funerals, over the years, for men of this, ‘the greatest generation’. As with all ministry, through which one puts oneself at the disposal and in the service of others, these memorials, over decades, have been moments of great privilege. One such occurred yesterday across the river in the Harvard Memorial Church. We are coming gradually toward the end of this generation’s memorials. Have we truly learned the lessons, their lessons, which by accident of circumstance, age, location, timing, calling, we have been given to celebrate, in ministry? What a privilege, in ministry, to participate in the highest and hardest moments of life. What a privilege.
Ministry is preaching and visiting. To preach requires, invites, demands visitation, some two dozen forty minute visits per week, forty minutes of listening, which is an offer of life, and forty seconds of extemporary prayer, which is an offer of grace. What a privilege to share the gospel week by week in such a way. You are in the middle of things.
Once when our son was ten years old, he accompanied me during such a visit with two parishioners. Mary and Bill had married just after the Second World War. They raised four daughters, who all had become vibrant, creative, caring adults. In addition they found time to prepare the Altar for Sunday, to sit through various Worship Committee meetings, to take an interest in local politics, to read and learn and grow and change, as faith intersected with life.
During the October that Bill was dying, our son Ben went with me once to see him. On an earlier visit, Bill had told me about his experience in the war. At age 20 Bill had become a pilot, and had flown 30 missions from England into and over Germany. His plane had been shot down once. He had survived, though not all of his crew had survived. He had carried responsibility for an airplane, a crew, many missions, and to some small but human degree, the outcome of the war itself. He was honored and decorated when the war ended. 30 missions later, several deaths later, many hours of anxious service later, many buildings and bridges destroyed later, after three years in command in England in the air in the war, he came home. He was 22. Bill was 22 years old, when the war ended, and he came home.
I cannot remember how this happened, but our son either asked to see or was offered to see Bill’s flight jacket. It was a heavy, worn, brown leather flight jacket, waist long with an old center zipper. At age 10, and I do not remember how this happened, whether he asked or was offered, Ben donned the jacket. He was small in it, but Bill himself was somewhat small, and the jacket fit, if poorly. Here was a moment when Mary, soon to be a widow, and Bill, soon to be buried, and Ben, soon to be 11, and I, soon to conduct a funeral, were fully quiet together. With that jacket Bill came home, 30 missions later, a war won, at 22 years of age. 22. A young man. Bill worked the next 40 years as a public relations writer for a small manufacturing company, a quiet life of backroom pencil sharpening, phoning, rewriting, and mailing.
Some moments stand frozen in time. Our son in Bill’s jacket is one. Bill’s primary work, his main adult life, as he reflected on all of his life, was completed by age 22.
Which provokes a question: Where did we ever get the idea that young people are not capable of great things?
Bill found his voice, his own self, at a young age, and quietly whispered his voice in faith for the rest of his days, right in the middle of things.
Here we are in the middle of things, the middle of June, the middle of life. In media res. In the middle of things.
Young adults are often concerned about relationships, anxious about performance, overly attentive to their changing appearance, and honestly uncertain about the future. You notice, I am sure, that in all these things they resemble no one as much as another remarkable age cohort sometimes referred to as their parents.
The issue of appearance, or appearances, which will dog us all for all our days, is of particular importance this morning. Now I think it is good to dress well for church, and particularly for such a special occasion as Pentecost, Whitsunday. In fact, we might wish that there were rather more than less attention, across our time and land, to the matter of courtesy, manners, and dress. However, the Scripture lesson this morning acclaims in startling fashion a distinctly different truth, which is, simply said, that what matters is not how you look but how you sound. In the life of the Spirit, that is, what counts is not your face but your voice.
To become a person is to find your voice. Spiritual gifts are vocal gifts, meant for the common good.
You may, and rightly, wonder why St Paul would start down this rickety path with the shouting Corinthians. In ancient Corinth, a city like New Orleans in its love of the love of the flesh, Paul spoke: God made them and gave them life; soon they would be at death in God’s presence; in the meantime they were a sorry lot; and Jesus Christ was raised from the dead to give them new life, community, heaven, meaning, love, and, oh yes, spirit. To this they responded with the chaotic shouting and disrespect They shouted! They groped! They misbehaved! They went overboard! If nothing else, that is, it seemed that there was plenty of volume in Corinth.
This morning we are in earshot of part of Paul’s lesson for the Corinthians. In a word, he is heard to say, you are mistaken to focus on what you see. What matters is how you sound. What do those around you hear and overhear in your voice?
I heard an editor at Random House explain how he could move through thousands of manuscripts very quickly, and know which ones to publish. “Oh, I can tell in a paragraph or two. Did you ever listen to someone sing? You can tell in a line or two”.
Paul is asking his new born church to exchange volume for value, to listen for the good gifts that God is giving, to feel the heart beat of life and love in various forms of speech that are the whole content of the spirit.
Paul gives, too, a concrete, historical measure of spirit. We all have come of age in a time in which the word spirit and its cousins are as exuberantly pronounced as they are unintelligibly defined. By contrast, for the Paul of 1 Corinthians 12 spirit means speech that does good. All of the gifts of spirit, he says, can be known and measured by one simple test: what do they do for the common good?
Notice the space Paul creates. There are varieties of gifts. Not one bouquet, but a meadow full of bouquets. Diversities, multiplicities, all the many-sided manyness that his Greek culture decried as the enemy of the true and the good and the beautiful—the oneness of truth—this diversity Paul celebrates.
God is giving us gifts all the time, but our ears are so muffled that we miss their value, their resounding power. The gifts which make up spirit are many and different, but are the bequests of a single spirit, lord and God (incidentally, one of the earliest Trinitarian references in scripture and history). These vocal gifts are to be distinguished from their contraries by a single test: do they build the common good?
So Paul directs the Corinthians to listen for the arrival of the gifts of the Spirit. You receive your measure of them too. Take the time, over the years, to hear them and know them and know your part in them.
To one is given the logos sophias, the word of wisdom. Some of you will become wise before your time. Our age disdains wisdom. We prefer willpower. It is willpower, or the will to power, that distinguishes our age, from the raucous willfulness of our music to the undisguised willfulness of our politics. We love things not because they are right and true but because they are ours. Look at many of our popular cultural figures. Are they wise? No, but they are willful, and in that combination of audacious imagination and utter willfulness, they symbolize much of our era. But the gift of the spirit is wisdom, the quiet capacity to see life as a whole. Listen for a word of wisdom.
To one is given the logos gnoseus, the word of knowledge. Paul elsewhere questions knowledge, but not here. Paul himself knew a great deal. He knew the Hebrew Bible well enough to use it, and recite it as a part of his heart. He knew the tradition of Greek philosophy, the sophists and the epicureans and the teaching of Plato, well enough to recall them with ease. He knew the cities of the empire well enough to traverse them with grace. He even knew enough of the craft of leather working to make his living, city by city, as a tent-maker, the original worker priest. I have no doubt that he would encourage our increase in knowledge, in many directions. But the knowledge to which he gives expression here is of a different kind. He means the knowledge that touches and warms the heart, that makes the heart strangely warm, the knowing word. You will know it when you have heard it.
It is thought feeling. It is felt thought. Try as we might to unglue the two, feeling and thought, they are enmeshed in one another. Someone will take you by the hand and whisper, “I love you”. Someone will ask you, pointedly, whether you plan to make something of your life. Someone will, at the right time in the right way, tell you to your face that you are forgiven for what you did and you should stop beating yourself up over it. Someone will point out to you a different possibility, a new alternative. Someone will invite you to come to worship God in a church, a church with depth, a church with texture, a church with body. More to the point, some of you will have that voice, that knowing voice, that telling voice, the voice of knowledge. Listen for a word of knowledge.
To another is given the gift of pistis, faith. Faith comes by hearing, we know, and hearing by the word of God. As a religion Christianity has yet to come to terms, far and wide it seems to me, with Paul’s blunt assertion that faith is a gift, a form of speech and hearing that is offered to some individuals for the sake of the common good. Perhaps the word of faith, upon your tongue, is the gift of the spirit to you. Listen for a word of faith.
To others are given the gifts of healing and energymata dunameon—energetic power. Words of healing and force, fitly spoken, that make a difference for the good, for the common good. Paul strictly measures the spirit, and spiritual gifts, according to a simple rule: does this make for the common good?
Yesterday we took our son’s two daughters for an afternoon. We rode the T. We walked through the Common. We rode the Carousel there. We hiked over the Fiedler bridge. We sat for ice cream along the esplanade. We meandered up along the river. We stopped in a playground, one where a tree has been carved into a part of the yard. All public space, all common good, all ushered into existence by spiritual gifts for the common good. I wonder how many meetings, how many hours, how many votes, how many speeches, how many voices have been lifted, for how many years, to make Boston such a shining example of public space for the common good? Listen for words of healing and force, fitly spoken, that make a difference for the common good.
To still others are given the gifts of prophecy, discernment, speaking and understanding. I ask that we notice only that all of these, like their predecessors have to do with speech, with voice. You become a person by finding your voice. Spiritual gifts are vocal gifts—in the tongues of Acts 2, in the shouts of Psalm 104, in the dominical cry of John 7, but especially in Paul’s declaration of 1 Corinthians 12.
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
In a moment we shall again stand together to proclaim the mystery of faith. We shall offer a great thanksgiving. Responsively, we shall offer the Lord’s presence to one another. Responsively, we shall encourage one another to lift our hearts to the Lord. Responsively, we shall recall the right goodness, the good rightness of great thanksgiving. Friends, we are rooted and grounded in a history of joyful blessing.
Our Lord’s ascent(c)invites our assent(s).
The gospel is rooted and grounded in a history of joyful blessing, even as it is read and spoken in order to root us and ground us in love. St. Luke, the author of the reading for today, has every intention of bonding us to the long parade of women and men who lived with happy hearts, in joyful blessing and great thanksgiving. Our Sunday service of ordered worship has its own roots deep in the past, carrying us in memory all the way back into the first century. You come from people who were thankful people, joyfully praising God. They give us a clear example, these earlier witnesses, of a balanced faith, a faith honest to God about sin, death and meaninglessness, but a faith yet confident, joyful and thankful in life. Luke ends his first book, the gospel, and as he starts his second, the Acts, with a hymn to ascent.
Now we may pause a moment to be grateful for the form of Luke’s message. He does believe in doing things decently and in order. Luke provides, by his own assessment, dear Theophilus, an orderly account. It is his view that the words of the Old Testament in law and prophets and psalms, when written of the Christ, are fulfilled in an orderly account of the life of Christ. It is Luke’s further view that Christ opens minds to understand Scripture. Luke makes plain the prediction, embedded in a right reading of inherited Scripture, of cross and resurrection and repentance and forgiveness and the preaching of all the above. It is his understanding that disciples are thus witnesses of all these things. They will be blessed as they bear witness. We will be blessed as we bear witness. You will be blessed as you bear witness. His ascent invites your assent. Luke’s gospel ends with our reading today, an orderly ending to a well ordered gospel. Jesus blesses and leaves. The disciples give thanks and stay.
Some of the ancient manuscripts that we have of this passage say simply, ‘he blessed them and parted from them’. Others read, ‘he blessed them and parted from them and was carried up into heaven’. It is not clear, at least to this interpreter, which reading is stronger, which more probably original. Yet it is significant, at least to this interpreter, to see and know that more than one version of this passage exists. The addition, if it was a later addition, of ‘was carried up into heaven’, makes this passage a suitable and qualified Ascension passage, unmistakably congruent to the account in Acts 1. Luke’s penchant for the orderly may have inspired a follower of his to do likewise, and clean up one aspect of the conclusion to the gospel. To Luke it mattered to put things in order, to get things right. His spiritual descendents may have had the same passion. The true desire to get things right reveals, makes naked, a sense of joyful blessing. A passion for true goodness, good beauty, beautiful truth, in life, work, politics, music, art, architecture, religion, hospitality and friendship reveals, unclothes, such a spirit.
We are thankful for Luke’s orderly account. We may be a bit mystified by the mythic account of Ascension. We may be less than certain of the meaning of such symbolic imagery in our own time. But we can be utterly confident about the effect of Ascension, on our forebears, and so on us. The religious consequence of the Luke’s conclusion to the Gospel is and invitation to lead a new life.
For all the dimness of creation, of the created order and the history within it, for all the trouble in life, in the gift of life and the history that comes with it, for all the fracture in body, in the body of Christ and the history that comes with it, still, at Ascension, there is hope, and promise, and life. Sometimes the gospel and we its very human interpreters need to shore up our sense of the way things have gone wrong. I suppose Lent and perhaps Advent too are markedly important seasons for emphasis upon the Fall—the way creation has somehow been loosened from the divine grasp. Other times the gospel and its very human interpreters need to short up our sense of creation as God’s creative act, in thanksgiving for what is right. Eastertide and Ascension may be such times. Today, in gospel and Eucharist, is such a day.
Such good news. After a frightfully long, old time religion winter, which seems to have ended about 40 minutes ago—today, sun, light, warmth, color, growth.
With you, I try to read the news and listen to the events of the day. As you do, I try to overhear behind the immediate din of sounds and bites, something of the heart of people and of our people. This spring, sometimes, I overhear a pained and painful sense of doubt about the possibilities in life. A doubt that things can change very much. A doubt that anything new could ever emerge. A doubt that people can repent and turn around. A doubt that systems, so entrenched and contentious, can ever be made orderly. A doubt that any of the older differences among us can ever be bridged. A doubt that any common expression of faith can be trusted. A doubt that any common faith or common ground or common hope can ever, with authenticity, emerge and survive. A doubt that minimizing one’s own visibility or audibility, for the sake of something bigger and someone else, could ever be faithful or reasonable. A doubt that the general public could be trusted to shoulder significant sacrifice. A doubt that anything I do or you do would ever make a difference.
When this cloud of doubt gets so thick that it eclipses both the sun and the moon, it is time to hear again the Ascension gospel. Such a thick cloud comes from a theological weather system
in which the cold front of wrong has chased out the warm front of right,
in which the low pressure of the fall has displaced the high pressure of creation,
in which the radical postmodern apotheosis of difference has silenced the liberal late modern openness to shared experience, to promise and future, to common faith, common ground, common hope,
in which the creation is seen from the cavern of the fall, not the fall from the prairie of creation.
This is a pastoral problem. It is not a political conflict, it is a theological contrast. It is not a matter of church coloration or religious style, it is a matter of creation, of God’s creation and the truth about creative goodness. Just how balanced is your balance between creation and fall?
Our New Testament lessons are primary sources for the time, occasion, community and condition in and for which they were first written. They are secondary sources, at best, for what may have come before. Luke 24 shows us Luke, and his community, in joyful celebration of the mystery of the Lord’s ascent. At his ascent they do assent, perhaps following decades of loss, displacement, and martyrdom. Having lived through the long old time religion winter of most of the first century, and all its rigors, they acclaimed a faith in a high, divine goodness, through it all.
Others over time have done the same. At this time of year I always think of Churchill and Wesley.
These two Englishmen have something for us, this Ascension Day, June 1, 2014, after a long winter. Think of England in May 1940. Think of London in May 1738.
Winston Churchill knew something both of fall and of creation.
At the right moment, in May of 1940, Winston Churchill faced down the more polished, better heeled, more popular and more experienced old Britons of his newly formed war cabinet, and steadily led his country away from their desire to compromise with Adolf Hitler. With Belgium defeated, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With France cut in two, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With 400,000 men stranded at Dunkirk and escape virtually impossible, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With the whole German air force poised to incinerate England’s green and pleasant land, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With Lord Halifax ready to seek terms, and Lord Chamberlain ready to let him, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. Re-read this summer John Lukacs’ Five Days in London, May 1940. He concludes: “Churchill and Britain could not have won the Second World War. In the end, America and Russian did. But in May 1940 Churchill (alone) was the one who did not lose it.” Ascension faith is about love of freedom. In his ascent we find the courage for our own assent.
John Wesley knew something both of fall and of creation.
At midlife, one enchanting night in May of 1738, John Wesley heard something said in church that warmed his heart for good. He had been on Aldersgate street that Sunday evening, going to chapel service more from duty than from passion, when he heard a preacher read Romans 8 and also Martin Luther’s commentary on that passage. There is something so fragrant and so full about damp London in the springtime. As he left church, Wesley felt something new, a freeing love in the heart, which is the creation and work of the Holy Spirit, which blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it. Ascension faith is about freeing love. In his ascent we find the courage for our own assent.
There are for sure a lot of things wrong. But there are also, and more surely still, a lot of things right. Hear the good news. The gospel concludes with joy. You are witnesses of the goodness of God, witnesses who come from a long line of people who joyfully bless, and routinely give great thanks. “Faith is an event expressing the conviction that the things not yet seen are more real than those that can be seen” (L Keck). As you, as I, as we together walk toward our last adventure, our own look over Jordan, it is this joyful thanksgiving, which carries us.
The communion homily today is an altar call for you. And the path toward the communion rail is our own sawdust trail. I propose that you come to communion, ready to accept the gift of faith, to give assent in the hour of dominical ascent. So come, to experience freeing love. So come, to receive a love of freedom. So come, to give thanks for the freedom to love. Such is the gift of ascent upon this Lord’s day. So come, on the feast of the Lord’s ascent, ready and willing, joyful and happy to assent to a new life of faith, hope and love.
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
I. Learn to love what you do not understand – God
So, here we are in Marsh Chapel with its Cram designed neogothic nave, its Connick stained glass, and its Casavant organ. Just as we have had four deans of Marsh Chapel named Bob, apparently if you want to work on the infrastructure of the chapel your last name must start with “C.” Here we are, listening to texts written neigh on two millennia ago, singing songs sung over the past five centuries, and yet inflicted with a preacher only three decades old. Here we are, in a chapel dwarfed by its surrounding schools and colleges, at the heart of a great research university, in the midst of the city that Oliver Wendell Holmes cited as “the Hub of the Solar System.” Here we are, pausing for a moment of awe, groping for a touch of wonder, steeped in the richness of history, and inspired by the presence of mystery. Here we are, come Sunday, that’s the day.
Do you know why you are here? My parents and my in-laws are here because I put coming to church on their itinerary for their trip to Boston, but the rest of you are here of your own volition. You have no excuse! What are you doing here? Why have you come? What possessed you, motivated you, inspired you to either make the trek in to church, or to flip on your radio, or to navigate to our live stream, or to download our podcast? And on Memorial Day weekend, no less!
Well, the reason that most people come to a major research university is that they do not know.
Now Brother Larry, you’re starting to sound like that student last semester cited in The Bunion, Boston University’s satirical student newspaper: “Rich Girl in Dining Hall Can’t Even.” Just as a fictional employee in the story wonders, “What can she not even? … That’s barely half a sentence!” so too we have to ask, they do not know what? What is it that they do not know?
Well, dear friends, particularly in the case of matriculating undergraduates, the answer again is: they do no know. That is, they do not know what they do not know. Before you can learn what you want to know, first you have to learn what you want to know. At the masters level, of course, we expect you to at least have some idea of the general field out of which your questions arise. Then at the doctoral level we expect you to have honed your question to such a narrow degree that you can write a dissertation entitled something like “The use of the conjunction ‘and’ in the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson written between May 1 and May 17, 1841.” (They’re funny. They think I’m kidding!). Of course, the greatest accomplishment of a PhD is learning exactly how much it is that you do not know.
Why would you go to a university if you already know? Libraries are places where knowledge is stored; universities are places where knowledge is pursued. But here’s the thing: at their best, churches are more like universities than they are like libraries. That is, church should be a place we come to pursue God, not a place where God is packed away in storage. In the life of the church, God is the great unknown for whom, as Paul says in our reading today from the Acts of the Apostles, we would search, and perhaps grope, and find. Paul identifies the God of Christ with the unknown god of the Athenians. Then, rather than presenting knowledge about their unknown God, Paul goes on to further affirm God’s unknowability. God is not like things we can know, like images made of gold, or silver, or stone, “formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” Rather than knowledge, Paul presents a paradox: “God who made the world and everything in it … is Lord of heaven and earth,” and yet God “is not far from each one of us.” God is transcendent and immanent; God is aloof and intimate.
This is why we have come, and more, this is why we were made: to be struck by awe, to be transformed in wonder, to emerge from history into the heart of mystery. We are travelers on a journey, not dwellers in a homestead. We are learning, we are traveling, we are growing, here on Sunday, and day by day in the classroom, and the laboratory, and the field site, we learn to love what do not know, we learn to love what we do not understand, we learn to love God.
God is here! As we your people
meet to offer praise and prayer,
may we find in fuller measure
what it is in Christ we share.
Here, as in the world around us,
all our varied skills and arts
wait the coming of the Spirit
into open minds and hearts.
II. Embodied feeling of God – Spirit
On this Memorial Day weekend I remember my childhood friend Marion McCrane. Now, Marion was my childhood friend because she was my friend when I was a child, even though Marion herself was of an age to be my grandmother. She and her sister Edna lived across the street from us, and my brother and I would go over to spend time with them, to hear their stories, to explore the antique artifacts of their childhood and family, to pet their three dogs and two cats, and to help care for the flora that proliferated under their deliberate care and guidance in both front and back yards. Marion died this past fall, and I had the privilege of presiding at her funeral. In preparing to lay Marian to rest, I found this story in Bernard Livingston’s book Zoo, Animals, People, Places.
One of the more interesting examples of skillful simulation of motherhood for a zoo animal was the experience … of Marion McCrane in hand-rearing a two-toed sloth born at the National Zoo. The two-toed sloth is a nocturnal creature that spends practically its whole life – eating, sleeping, traveling – suspended upside down in the trees by its limbs. The infant lies on the mother’s abdomen as she lethargically moves about the forest. Ms. McCrane, as a zoologist on the National staff, had hand-reared everything from monkeys to snakes, but as far as they knew nobody had ever hand-reared a two-toed sloth before…
Ms. McCrane was equal to the challenge. After experimenting with a number of techniques that did not quite work she managed to succeed in simulating the precise position that an infant sloth assumes while nursing in his upside-down world. And a bottle of half-strength evaporated milk did the trick for little Mary Jane…
Ms. McCrane solved the material-contact problem by housing Mary Jane in a strong basket packed with towels, blankets, hot water bottle and a muff to which the infant clung as a substitute for her mother’s abdomen. The waking nocturnal hours were filled in with feeding and a bit of clinging to Ms. McCrane herself.
Can there be any experience of greater awe and wonder than that of mothering love? Here was Marion, living out of the history of her own experience and into the mystery of mothering this small, vulnerable creature in love. As Jesus said, Marion lived, “I will not leave you orphaned.”
For Paul, we do not know God, and yet in God “we live and move and have our being;” God “is not far from each one of us.” We do not know God, but we feel God, we encounter the mystery of God in our bodies. Awe and wonder are not thought; they are felt. We feel God in the quickening of the heart, in the shortness of breath, in the fleeting failure of words and concepts. It was the great Protestant theologian, and grandfather of liberal theology, Friederich Schleiermacher, who said that religion is “the feeling of absolute dependence.” We do not know but we feel ourselves dependent on God for our very being and the world in which we live and move.
We do not know God but we feel God and we desire God. Jesus, speaking in the voice of John the Evangelist, does use the language of knowledge to describe our relationship with the Advocate, the Spirit of truth. But is this the knowledge of facts or the knowledge of lovers? Well, apparently we will know the Spirit because the Spirit “abides with” us, and “will be in” us. This hardly seems like knowledge acquired by pure reason. Rather this is the language of eros, of desire, of embodied feeling. “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” To be sure, erotic language in relation to God is dangerous. There is a reason that our Jewish brothers and sisters prohibit reading the Song of Solomon until you are both married and have passed your thirtieth year. Nonetheless, what other language could express the intimacy that is the embodied feeling of God other than the language of desire between lovers or the image of the loving and nurturing parent? “I go and I will come to you and your heart shall rejoice.” We know, in that we feel, in our bodies, the love of the unknown God in the intimate presence of the Spirit.
O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear,
And kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing.
O let it freely burn, til earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long,
Shall far outpass the power of human telling;
III. Suffering persists – Christ
And yet, suffering persists. Our feeling the glory and love of God, while it may transform suffering, does not overcome it. “The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross. The cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection.” The Advocate, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth accompanies us on the journey of life and faith into the never-ending depths divine unknowability, but cannot walk the path for us.
On this Memorial Day weekend we remember too many who have endured suffering and death as a result of human failure: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. In the end, these seven deadly sins are our human succumbing to fear: lust is the fear of solitude, gluttony the fear of hunger, greed the fear of poverty, sloth the fear of being overwhelmed, (no offense to Mary Jane!), wrath the fear reconciliation, envy the fear of being enough, and pride the fear of being wrong. Alas, these sins are all too often most deadly to those who surround those who commit them.
In March, Bishop Elias Toume, Greek Orthodox bishop of the Valley of the Christians in Syria gave the keynote address at the annual Costas Consultation on Global Mission hosted by the Boston Theological Institute. He spoke of the suffering of Christians in Syria, in the midst of the suffering of the Syrian people generally. He reminded us that Christianity was, in a sense, born in Syria, with Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. He wonders whether Christianity now will die in Syria. Bishop Elias told the story of facilitating a prisoner exchange between the military and the rebel forces, in which some of his congregants were caught in the middle. At the end he said, “Being a bishop is not about going to parties and presiding at ceremonies. Being a bishop is about being ready, at a moments notice, to lay down your life for your people.”
“But if you suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated… For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” (1 Peter 3: 14 & 18).
Abide, then, in the love of the unknowable God. Feel the flaming desire of the Spirit in your heart, in your gut, in your spirit. And even in the midst of suffering, keep the commandments of Christ, whom God has appointed to judge the world in righteousness. Amen.
~ Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+
University Chaplain for Community Life
Boston University’s 2014 Baccalaureate speaker was Dr. Nancy Bishop, Amgen, Inc., Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For more information, please see the BU Today article.
There will be no sermon text posted for this Baccalaureate address.