The Bach Experience

November 20th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 23:33-43

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Rev. Gaskell

The Chapel’s gothic nave, built to lift the spirit, welcomes you

The Chapel’s sixty year history, at the heart of Boston University, welcomes you

The Chapel’s regard for persons and personality, both in its Connick stained glass windows and in its current ministry, welcomes you

The Chapel’s familiar love of music, weekday and Sunday, welcomes you

The Chapel’s congregation of caring, loving souls, in this sanctuary, welcomes you in spirit.

Welcome today as we enhance our endowment.

We celebrate the endowment we already have.  It is a rich and treasure.  It is an endowment vocal not visible, audible not audited, psychic not physical, moral not material.  Listen for its echoes…listen…

All the good you can…

The two so long disjoined…

Heart of the city, service of the city…

Learning, virtue, piety…

Good friends all…

Hope of the world…

Are ye able, still the Master, whispers down eternity…

Common ground…

Content of character…

Congregation and community, you come too.

Earthly assembly and heavenly chorus, you come too.

Beauty opens the world to grace.  Beauty may prepare you for the gospel of faith, the faith of the gospel.  Beauty is a ‘praeparatio evangelica’, a preparation of the gospel.  Bach is a prelude to faith.

Faith, the leap of faith, requires preparation.  Our colleague Peter Berger has written about this preparation: “I can find in human reality certain intimations of (God’s) speech, signals, unclear though they are, of His presence…joy, expressed in (great music) which seeks eternity…the human propensity to order which appears to correlate with an order in the universe…the immensely suggestive experience of play and humor, the irrepressible human propensity to hope, the certainty of some moral judgments, and last, but not least, the experiences of beauty…”(Questions of Faith, 12).

Beauty prepares us for faith.  Bach is a prelude to the gospel.

When you stand before your grandchild, in the hour of birth, you might think about that.  When you look into your father’s eyes, as he lies critically ill, you might think about that. When you realize that you have a real friend, one real friend, you might think about that. When you look at your beautiful country, in a time of need, and wonder whether you should bestir yourself to write a check or make a phone call, you might think about that. When a sunset seizes you, when a poem teases you, when a sermon freezes you, you might think about that.  It takes a leap.  Faith takes a leap.

Something beautiful may have prepared our gospel writer.  Bach may prepare you today.  Bach may lift your soul beyond youthful grunge.  Bach may raise your soul out of religious hiding.  Bach may sear your soul with beauty, and call you out of forty years of spiritual sloth.  It would not be the first time.  Today we hear a song of thanksgiving, a grateful and beautiful anthem. “Bach’s cantatas, in fact, were conceived and should be regarded not as concert pieces at all, but as musical sermons; and they were incorporated as such in the regular Sunday church services”. (The Cambridge Companion to Bach, 86).  I wonder whether the beautiful holiness of this music will touch you?

Dr. Jarrett

Today we present Cantata 10: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord’, Bach’s German setting of the Canticle of Mary as found in the first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. Our program annotator Brett Kostrzewski reminds us both of the joyful prevalence of this text in most all Christian liturgies, but also the familiarity of the Leipzig congregation with this most joyful and famous canticle.

Let’s first consider the libretto for our cantata. Typically, we’d expect to find a biblical exhortation – perhaps a verse or two from a Psalm – followed by a series of recitatives and arias, each of which advances a different rhetorical argument or perspective of the scriptural subject of the day. The recits tend to pack in the most theology with their syllabic declamation, leaving the arias to convey a more personal response to the scriptural subject. Cantata 10 draws its libretto entirely from the Canticle of Mary, the first two verses quoted exactly, with the interior movements paraphrasing the remainder of the text. Only once does our anonymous librettist depart from the Lukan text when, in the final recitative, the tenor expounds on the broader theological implications of the word made flesh with themes that remind us of the first chapter of John. Bach adds the string orchestra at this moment, as if to underscore the importance of this final teaching opportunity.

There are three arias that comprise the corpus of the cantata. The first proceeds directly out of the opening movement without recitative, and immediately and successfully captures both the spirit of John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth’s womb but also Mary’s joyful exuberance. The central aria provides the bass soloist and continuo cellist a flashy and virtuosic depiction of God casting down the mighty from their seat, exalting the humble, leaving the rich empty, and filling the hungry with gifts of grace. The third aria is perhaps the most inward looking moment in the entire cantata. Scored as a duet for alto and tenor, listen for the Magnificat chant played in long tones by the trumpet.

There are two recitatives for the tenor soloist, both of which offer rich examples of Bach’s extraordinary text setting. Note the chromatic flourish on the word ‘scatter’ in the first recitative, for example.

It is the cantata’s opening movement that best captures the urgency and ardor of Mary’s Song. The ages old Magnificat psalm tone is heard in long notes in the Soprano part, taken up by the altos for the second verse. All around, Bach scores music of brilliant vivacity, depicting both the exuberance of Mary’s joy, but also the promise and urgency of Christ’s advent.

Rev. Gaskell

Let us prepare ourselves, upon this Christ the King Sunday, and take on for ourselves, a spirit of wonder, of vulnerability

Erazim Kohak, of Boston University said of wonder:  ‘The ageless boulders of the long abandoned dam, the maple and the great birch by twilight, the chipmunk in the busyness of his days and of his dying, even I, making my dwelling place among them, are not only right in our season.  We also have our value in eternity, as witnesses to the audacious miracle of being rather than nothing.  Ultimately, that is the moral sense of nature, infinitely to be cherished:  that there is something.  That is the eternal wonder articulated in the rightness and rhythm of time which humans honor in their commandments, the wonder of being…There are humans…who become blind to goodness, to truth and beauty, who drink wine without pausing to cherish it, who pluck flowers without pausing to give thanks, who accept joy and grief as all in a day’s work, to be enjoyed or managed, without ever seeing the presence of eternity in them.  But that is not the point.  What is crucial is that humans, whether they do so or not, are capable of encountering a moment not simply as a transition between a before and an after but as the miracle of eternity ingressing intot time.  That, rather than the ability to fashion tools, stands out as the distinctive human calling.’

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, of blessed memory, said of vulnerability:  ‘Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute:  we must simply hold out and see it through.  That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation; for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bond between us.  It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap:  He does not fill it, but on the contrary, He keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.’

Gaston Bachelard, that Parisian philosopher poet, wrote, in full self-awareness:  ‘Words—I often imagine this—are little houses, each with its cellar and garret.  Common sense lives on the ground floor, always ready to engage in ‘foreign commerce’, on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers.  To go upstairs in the word house, is to withdraw, step by step; while to go down to the cellar is to dream, it is losing oneself in the distant corridors of an obscure etymology, looking for treasures that cannot be found in words.  To mount and descend in the words themselves—this is the poet’s life…Yet listen well.  Not to my words, but to the tumult that rages in your body when you listen to yourself…And why should the actions of the imagination not be as real as those of the perception?’

Bach is filling us with grace and beauty! In particular, the final recit (No. 6) strays a bit from Luke, to amplify a little more theology, and seems to borrow heavily from John: “Thus it ever is, that God’s Word is full of grace and truth.”   Because the Gospel of John is centrally about the divine presence, this note fits our music today very well.  John is about presence, as is this magnificent cantata.  John is about Spirit, as is this magnificent cantata.  John is about mystery, as is this magnificent cantata.  John is about grace, as is this magnificent cantata.  Blessed be the Lord God of Israel!

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty savior for us

in the house of his servant David,

as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,

and has remembered his holy covenant,

the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,

to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,

might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness

before him all our days.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to his people

by the forgiveness of their sins.

By the tender mercy of our God,

the dawn from on high will break upon us,

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

Reverend Gaskell’s portion of this week’s sermon is written by the Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

A Thanksgiving Conversation

November 13th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 21:5-9

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Let us be thoughtful in conversation this coming Thanksgiving.

Let us be mindful of the goodness of God, as sung in the Psalm this morning.  Let us be mindful of the blessings of God.

The goodness of God knows no limit, no single season, no particular admixture of victory and defeat.   Our friends (1), the seasons themselves (2), and the prayerful practice of remembrance (3) tell us this again.

Let us be mindful of friendship.  The friendship of Marsh Chapel is offered each Lord’s day, and each day in the Lord, first and foremost to those most in need.   The physical safety of our students, in all times and in all seasons, stands as our highest priority in friendship.  If you are a sophomore, say, and sense you are in some need or peril, our Hospitality Staff welcomes you in friendship.  Mr. Bouchard, our Chapel Director, who will read in a moment a playful poem about friendship, guides a team, including one staff person related to Title IX issues, devoted to your security, in use of space, in programmatic support, and in personal protection.  Now in a season when, given the events of this past week and its election, some sense possible peril, we stand with you, on a daily basis, on the ground level, in a protective posture.

Let us be mindful of friendship, as was our friend, of blessed memory, Max Coots:


“Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

For children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are….

For generous friends with hearts and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we’ve had them;

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the other, plain as potatoes and as good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels Sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem Artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;

For all these we give thanks.”

Let us be mindful of friendship.  And let us be mindful of the seasons.

Next week, most will sit before a carved turkey.  For many years, Marsh Chapel provided such a meal right here.  Now the University itself has taken up that meal, and provides it for students who are here over break, along now with open housing.  (Your ministry, Marsh Chapel, has been such an incubator over time, for service that then becomes University wide.  A Marsh Chapel Martin Luther King observance, becomes a University wide observance.  A Marsh Chapel community service program, becomes a University wide service.  A gospel group becomes a University-wide Inner Strength Gospel choir, Marsh Chapel hosted.  A Marsh Chapel Howard Thurman room and listening center becomes a University Howard Thurman Center.  A Marsh Chapel commitment to pastoral care over six decades becomes further embodied in behavioral health, and SARP, and the office of the Ombuds, and others.  Your work in incubation continues.) You plant seeds, and they grow, and grow up and on and out.  Season by season.  So next week, you will be at your table, somewhere.

Given the choices others have made in election and selection, and given the tragic tide of white nationalism, as un-Christian as it is un-American, which has surprisingly splashed upon all this week, how shall we engage in conversation with family with whom we disagree, come Thanksgiving? Perhaps it will be too much, this year, and silence or absence will be required.  Yet, it may be that the rhythms of nature in harvest will help us.  It may be that the season itself, redolent and rich with meaning, may support us.  It may be that the hymns of Thanksgiving, hummed or remembered, may help us.  You could also sing them, of course, even if you are not Methodists.  It may be that prayers, like the three used year by year here at Marsh, and used today, may help us.  Feel free to borrow.

Yes, our lessons from ancient Scripture regularly surround us with a thanksgiving conversation:  Isaiah in hope, the Psalmist in praise, the Epistle in encouragement, and the Gospel in patience. Even those of us dwelling mostly in an urban setting can from this autumn—warm, mostly; dry, mostly; pleasant, mostly—receive such a sense of blessing and so a sense of gratitude.  Seed-time gives way to harvest, as tears give way to shouts and joy. The long months of hidden growth, of change and development under the earth, are a firm reminder that the future will look different from the past, and from the present.  Every autumn, every harvest season, we are offered such a reminder.

Let us be mindful of the good earth, of the fruits of harvest, of the fruits of years of labor and love, as one remembered in the figure of her friend.  Carol Zahm, now deceased, wrote a poem prayer, about a friend, some years ago.  It is set in Wisconsin, on a family farm.  Today it will be read by our University Chaplain for International students, Ms. Jessica Chicka.  As Mr. Bouchard cares for space and safety, she cares for our International sisters and brothers.  As a junior, you might muse, isn’t it wonderful that she is here!  In a fortnight when the ugliness of American selfishness, and a shameful ‘Christian’ bigotry, may frighten our beloved neighbors, or worse, she is here to provide pastoral care, and programmatic support and administrative help for all—for those from Pakistan and Korea and China, and for those who are Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist or Confucian—or no religious tradition at all.  In a week when students on campuses, now, given the open space set out for this by a particular, now victorious, party and candidate, who have unashamedly ridden a wave of white nationalism, are accosted for wearing religious garb, or who are fearful for their families (one interviewed by the New York times, standing on the steps not twenty feet from the Marsh Chapel on Wednesday), your ministry with and to those who are strangers in an increasingly strange land, has real portent.  (We need someone, by the way, to endow the Deanship of Marsh Chapel, a $4 million gift, to make sure this sort of ministry continues in perpetuity.  We need others, by the way, to tithe in support of Marsh Chapel for the year to come, to make sure this sort of ministry continues into the future—where will your tithe go?)  It may be, at Thanksgiving, that the season, the harvest, nature itself, will support us.

Sitting by my window—looking out at the field

This chair has been such a comfort for so many years

Rocking—rocking

All the children were comforted in this chair

All grown and gone now

Babies—growing year after year

‘Til they could go to the field to help

The fields—so green in the spring

Then the plough broke it up into beautiful brown earth

Worked over and over

Until the seeds had a wonderful bed in which to grow

Week after week growing

And then harvest.

We all went to the field for the harvest.

Sunrise to sunset

Day after day

Finished at last

Ready for winter

Now looking across the field at beautiful virgin snow

Like watching a baby sleep.  So peaceful.

Happy for the quiet.

Anxious for the awakening

Start again

Sitting by my window

Rocking Rocking

Her rocking, the rhythm of her remembrance, along the brown earth, seems a world away from our world today, for we have been this past week through a very difficult patch. Nature may aid culture here.

We will want to be somber and sober to remember that God gives the human being a rooted, daily freedom, but does not then suddenly intervene to erase that freedom, however perversely, however violently, however despicably that freedom is used.

We will want to stand up, sit up, and take notice that liberty is only of any value within the constraints of security to enjoy it; and that security is only of any value as a basis for the enjoyment of liberty itself.

As people of faith we cannot in sloth afford to be naïve, refusing the dominical wisdom of serpents to hide underneath a false innocence of doves, when facing hatred, religious terrorism, and nihilistic venom.   Protection for the lamb requires resistance to the wolf, before either determines to lie down with the other.  Any manner of bigotry deserves to be met by condemnation, contempt and resistance.  We have plenty of work to do, and let us not grow weary in doing it.

We do not want to pray, preach, sing or proffer a kind of cheap grace. The utter realism of the Bible, on the one hand, and our brutal experience across many centuries, on the other hand, and now including this past week, forbid it.  Read again Victor Klemperer’s two volume diary, I Will Bear Witness, or the exemplary biography of Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory.

In helping one another, and speaking to our children, in Thanksgiving conversation, we can at least remind them that ‘they are safe, and it is OK to feel sad about what has happened to others’, and we can continue to support and protect our neighbors and friends of all manner of different traditions, religious and secular alike.

 So let us be mindful of the seasons this Thanksgiving.  And let us be mindful of remembrance.

Howard Thurman, who was a hundred years ahead of his time fifty years ago, was so mindful.  Our University Chaplain, Br. Whitney will read Thurman’s poem in a moment.  What Mr. Bouchard brings to physical safety, and what Ms. Chicka brings to religious safety, Br. Whitney brings in full to psychic safety.  With his team, and in partnership with others across the campus, he ministers—perhaps with you in your senior year?—to anxiety, to depression, to all that unbalances the person.  See, hear him, and know he is here with and for you.  Thurman’s poem:

 

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

 

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood,

The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives

Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies

And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;

The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day

To conclude, a story, an analogy—full well knowing that all analogies stumble.  The point of the parable is that there is still a future, remarkable, different, and good—we just do not know what the future holds.

In 1978 we had planned maybe to stay in NYC, and there or nearby to study further.  In our third year of seminary though we became pregnant.  Then after Christmas Jan suffered a severe illness, requiring surgery:  the doctor said he did know whether either mother or child would survive the six-month stage operation.  By God’s grace, they did.  We moved suddenly into a small church in Ithaca, NY, a congregation whose minister had run off with the organist mid-year, hence an opening, and a place where mother and coming child could convalesce, and ministry could begin, with some commuting for the finishing seminarian, back down to NYC.

Now my Korean student in Boston says, ‘Dean Hill there are three kinds of Korean Christians:  conservative, very conservative and very, very conservative’.  Then, in Ithaca, there were three kinds of people:  liberal, very liberal, and very, very liberal.  It was 1979, and all weddings were done on horseback, underwater, out in a field, or naked (well, that is hyperbole, but you get the point).  That fall, a modest proposal to improve a road up the far hill to the hospital was met with communal outrage, and defense of the squirrel population near Trumansburg. The newspaper reported that three people attended a hearing, in squirrel defense, dressed as squirrels (not hyperbole, and you get the point).  The next year, an election was held.  Its results produced apocalyptic apoplexy:  the president elect—Ronald Reagan.  That winter, in a Cornell graduate student home, over dinner, we spoke in fear and trepidation of what would befall the republic.  But the host, a veteran Washingtonian back to do a PhD above Cayuga’s waters, listened and quietly, presciently, replied: “No, he will not trim the bureaucracy—it will expand.  No, he will not eliminate the debt—it will grow.  No he will not cut taxes—they will increase.  He doesn’t have the power.  He will shove and push that tree and one apple will fall.  Watch and wait. (You would have thought he was quoting today’s Lukan little apocalypse).”

You watch and wait.  We left Ithaca in 1981 for pastoral visits along the St. Lawrence, in the far north, in the bitter cold, in the barns at milking; for ministry among farmers and truck drivers in the fire department; for an immersion in non-urban poverty, poverty without electricity and without a subway, along a frozen river; and later for counseling with engineers let go by a failing Carrier Corporation; prayer with factory workers dis-employed by Oneida Silver and Smith Corona; tearful farewells to executives leaving Kodak; in short, the disappearance of both farming and manufacturing, as the drums of globalization beat along the Mohawk.  That is, our real theological education began, in earnest, in 1981.  Martin Luther: “One becomes a theologian by living, by dying, and by being damned, not by understanding, reading, and speculation.” You watch and wait.  You have faith, you have hope, and you have each other.  And you have plenty of work to do, awaiting the day when ‘the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food.  They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain says the Lord.’

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

All the Saints

November 6th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 6:20-31

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There is no text for this sermon.

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Come Down Zaccheus!

October 30th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 19:1-10

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Did we in our own strength confide

Our striving would be losing

Were not the Right Man on our side

The Man of God’s own choosing

Dost as who that may be?

Christ Jesus it is He

Lord Sabaoth His name

From age to age the same

And he must win the battle

 It is hard for me to tell, from this angle, which tree you are in.  Given the troubles of this autumn, it is hard for me to tell which tree I am in myself, day to day.  Has life chased you up the tree of doubt?  Or are you treed in the branches of idolatry—idol-a-tree? Or are we shaking or shaking in the money tree? Or stuck without faith in the religion tree?   Jesus calls us today, to come down out of the tree forts of our own making, and accept a loving relationship with Him.  May we measure all with a measure of love.

  1. Doubting Zaccheus

Perhaps the presence of unexplained wrong provokes you to doubt the benevolence in life or the goodness in God.   To doubt that ‘God is at work in the world to make and to keep human life human’ (John Bennett).  Randomness may have treed you.

No one can explain why terrible things happen, as they do.  But if you will come down a limb or two from your philosophical tree of doubt, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you may hear faith.  God can bring good out of evil, and make bad things work to good. This is not a theological declamation, and certainly not a paean to providence.  It is just something we can notice together.

We played golf one day.  On the last hole, I pulled out a three wood and hit a grounder, that nonetheless rolled right to the green.  If I had connected, I would have smashed the clubhouse window, for it was way too much club.  Sometimes a bad thing, a worm burner golf shot, interferes with a really bad thing, a $1000 broken window.

One Sunday, years ago, I drove late to church.  I used to run early Sunday and finish memorizing the sermon along the way, as I did on that Lord’s Day.  I just forgot the time.  We raced to church , and in so doing I cut a corner, literally, and so popped a car tire.  I was not happy to hear my son say, “haste makes waste”.  You know, though, both rear tires were thin.  I had replaced the front two months earlier, and forgot about the rear ones.  I have to admit, it was good that I had reason to replace them, before I had a blowout, on the highway.  Sometimes it happens that a bad thing prevents a really terrible thing from happening.

Joseph was thrown into a pit, and sold into slavery.  He had to find his way, as a Jew, in the service of the mighty Pharaoh.  He did so with skill, and rose to a position of influence, even with Potiphar’s wife chasing him around in his underwear.   Then, a full generation later, a great famine came upon those brothers who had earlier sold Joseph down the river.  They went to Pharaoh, looking for food.  And who met them, as they came to plead?  There was Joseph.  He so memorably said, as written in Genesis 50: “You meant this for evil, but God meant it for good, that many might be saved.”  Sometimes it happens that a bad thing in one generation prevents starvation in the next.

So in Jericho, as Jesus found the little man up in the tree, his fellows grumbled (vs. 8).  Why would he take time with such a greedy, selfish person who makes his living off the sweat of others’ brows?  That hurts, to see divine attention given to those who have harmed you.  Why would he have a meal with someone who takes no thought for the hurt of God’s people?  This is bad!  And it is.  We miss the power of the parable if we do not see this.  This is Jesus taking up with those who have wished the church ill, who have used the church for their own very well intended but nonetheless self-centered reasons.  This is Jesus consorting with sinners.  But sometimes a bad thing in the little brings a good thing in the large.  Zaccheus changes, and in so doing provides great wealth for others’ benefit.

Come down from this one tree, doubting Zaccheus.  I know that bad things happen to good people, and as a pastor hardly anything troubles me more.  Sometimes, though, sometimes—not always, just sometimes–a bad thing early averts a really bad thing late.  I have seen it, and you have too.  It is enough to give someone up the doubting tree a reason to come down at least a branch.  Think of it as existential vaccination.

It is the labor of faith to trust that where sin abounds, grace over-abounds.  Even in this autumn of anxiety and depression. But one of the redeeming possibilities in this season of cultural demise is the chance that as a result, enough of us, now, will become enough committed to the realization of a just, participatory and sustainable world, that these darker days will move us toward a fuller light. Sometimes a bad thing in one part of history protects us from a worse thing in another part.

Let us not lose sight of the horizons of biblical hope, as improbable as they can seem.  The lion and the lamb.  No crying or thirst.  The crooked straight.  All flesh.

The divine delight comes still from saving the lost, including the forgotten, seeking the outcast, retrieving the wayward sons and daughters of Abraham.  God wants your salvation.  Your salvation “has personal, domestic, social, and economic consequences” (Craddock).  Jesus Christ saves us from doubt.

So come down Zaccheus, come down from your perch in that comfortable sycamore tree, that comfortable pew, that skeptical reserve, that doubt.  Come down Zaccheus!  The Lord Jesus Christ has need of your household and your money, and He responds to your doubt.

  1. Idolatrous Zaccheus

Come down Zaccheus, down from your overly zealous leanings, hanging out on the branch of life.  Idolatry comes when we make one or more of the lesser, though significant, loyalties in life to become a shadow of the one great loyalty, that which the heart owes alone to God.  Zaccheus had governmental responsibility, community status, a welcoming home, a fine family, and we can suspect he was loyal in these regards.  Curious as he was, up on his branch, he had no relationship with the divine.  Into this relationship, Jesus invites him.  More precisely, Jesus invites himself into relationship with a man up a tree.  He is invited into a whole new life, a new world of loving and faithful relationships, that stem from the one great loyalty.

We need to be careful about lesser loyalties this fall.

Remember last week, and our prayer for forgiveness of sin?  We confessed lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy and…’integrity without humility’, pride.  Say you were an attorney general in a state with a governor’s election ten days away.  You find a folder on your desk, empty, but with a pending potential investigation.  You feel that your integrity requires that you tell the whole inhabited earth about a pending possible investigation about which you know nothing.  You remember your Boy Scout law (trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent), and decide your integrity requires a statement.  But what of your humility? (The scout motto—a good turn daily—not just the law).  Humility would require you to consider due process, to consider past practice near elections, to consider the advice of your colleagues in law enforcement, and to consider the nuances of the situation and your conscience.  Integrity, alone, bulldozes blazes and blasts  past all these.  Harm is done.  Integrity without humility is the worst of the seven deadly sins—pride.  When we grow up, sometimes, we recognize the peril of integrity alone, the great steed of integrity, without the bit and bridle and saddle of humility—pride.

Yet all of this involves a lesser loyalty than the one owed to God.   We can forget whose water we were baptized into, if we are not careful.  Rather, let us remember the student of Paul who wrote 2 Thessalonians: your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing (2 Thess. 1: 4).

Do you see the danger?  Come down Zaccheus, come down, before it is too late.    Make sure your lesser loyalties—to government, family, home, all—do not cover over, do not shadow the one great loyalty, that all of your daily tasks do not eclipse a living memory of a common dream:

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

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

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

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

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

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

We harbor a common dream, a dream that our families, torn apart by abuse and distrust and anger and jealousy and unkindness, will sit at a long Thanksgiving table, this autumn, and share the turkey and pass the potatoes, and slice the pie, and, if grudgingly, show kindness and pity to one another.

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

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

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

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

  1. Wealthy Zaccheus

Come down Zaccheus, come down, at last.  Impediments to faith come through doubt and idolatry and resentment and religion, but none of these holds a candle to the harm that wealth can bring.  In global terms and in historical terms, every one of us in this room is wealthy.  Ours are first world problems.  Luke’s entire gospel, especially its central chapters, is aimed at this point.  For Luke’s community, the remembered teachings of Jesus about wealth were most important.  That tells me that the Lukan church had money, and so do we.  This is what makes the account of Zaccheus, “one who lined his own pockets at other people’s expense”, so dramatic for Luke, and so Luke concludes his travel narrative with this clarion call:  come down.  Be careful as you do not to trip over wealth, power or health.  We lose them all, give them all away, over time.  They are impermanences.  They go.  Better that we see so early.  Time flies—ah no.  Time stays—we go.

Wouldn’t you love to know what Jesus said to Zaccheus that caused him to give away half of what he had?  I would.

It is a western, white, male, educated, wealthy, healthy, heterosexual, middle class, two handed world.  I need to be reminded of that.  Come down Zaccheus, and feel the pain of others.  And:  Soon we will all be dead.  Maybe we could find ways to use whatever power we have now to honor God, love our neighbor, reflect our mortality, and affirm the powerless.  Come down Zaccheus, come down!

Before we left seminary, on the day after Thanksgiving in 1978, an odd event befell us.  I worked nights as a security guard in those years and would come home to sleep at 7am.  Jan had the day off, and left to shop, but left the door to our little apartment ajar, by accident.  About noon a street woman found her way into the building and up into our floor, and then into our room.  I woke up to see a very poor, deranged woman, fingering rosary beads, and mumbling just over my head.  Boy did I shout.  She ran into the next room and I stumbled downstairs to call the police.  By the time three of New York’s finest and I returned to the apartment, the poor lady was in the bathtub, singing and washing.  They took her away.  Jan came back at 3 and asked how I had slept.  The moment has stayed in the memory, though, as an omen.  Our wealth is meant for the cleansing of the poor of the earth.  Perhaps tthe Lord wanted me to remember that in ministry, so I have tried to.  Come down Zaccheus, and use your wealth for the poor.

  1. Religious Zaccheus

Let’s talk for a moment about religion, shall we?  Come down Zaccheus, come down!  No amount of religious apparatus can ever substitute for what Jesus is offering today, and that is loving relationship.  No amount of theological astuteness can ever substitute for loving relationship.  No amount of sturdy churchmanship can ever substitute for loving relationship.  No amount of righteous indignation can ever substitute for loving relationship.  No amount of church music, instrumental or vocal, can ever substitute for loving relationship.  No amount of formal religion can ever substitute for the power of loving relationship.  Jesus invites us into loving relationship with him, and so with each other.  That is salvation.  Are we lovers anymore?

Like Zaccheus in the tree, religion can dwell above Jesus, high and aloof.  Is it good to be above Jesus?

It was the German monk Martin Luther who, in 1517, went alone and nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg, and thereby splintered inherited religion to bits.  The words of this same Luther were read, as interpretation of Romans 8, on the rainy night in London, 1738, along Aldersgate Street, as John Wesley’s heart, at long last, was strangely warmed, and he came down from the tree of religion, to sit at table with the Faith of Christ.  We remember Luther this Sunday every year.  We pointedly remember that we are saved by faith, by faith alone, by grace we are saved by faith, and not by any or all the works of the law.

Here is an old, ostensibly humorous story.  A man approaches the pearly gates.  “Tell me about the good in your life (says Peter):  admission requires 100 points.”  “Well, I once gave to the United Way (1 point).  And, I remember I shoveled a neighbor’s walk (1 point).  I used to go to church (1 point).”  (Pause).  ‘You, know I’ll never make it to 100 points except by the grace of God’.  (GRACE OF GOD—97 POINTS).

Luther recalls us down from the religion tree, to sit at the table of faith:

“Sola Fide”

“Crux Sola Nostra Theologia”

“Sin Boldly, but trust upon the Lord Jesus Christ more boldly still”.

“In the midst of the affliction He counsels, strengthens confirms, nourishes, and favors us…. More over, when we have repented, He instantly remits the sins as well as the punishments. In the same manner parents ought to handle their children

“Thus every matter, if it is to be done well, calls for the attention of the whole person.”

“If there is anything in us, it is not our own; it is a gift of God. But if it is a gift of God, then it is entirely a debt one owes to love, that is, to the law of Christ. And if it is a debt owed to love, then I must serve others with it, not myself. Thus my learning is not my own; it belongs to the unlearned and is the debt I owe them…My wisdom belongs to the foolish, my power to the oppressed. Thus my wealth belongs to the poor, my righteousness to the sinners

“It is with all these qualities that we must stand before God and intervene on behalf of those who do not have them, as though clothed with someone else’s garment…But even before men we must, with the same love, render them service against their detractors and those who are violent toward them; for this is what Christ did for us.”

“Teaching is of more importance than urging.”

“One learns more of Christ in being married and rearing children than in several lifetimes spent in study in a monastery

“One becomes a theologian by living, by dying, and by being damned, not by understanding, reading, and speculation

“What would it profit us to possess and perform everything else and be like pure saints, if we meanwhile neglected our chief purpose in life, namely, the care of the young?”

“Without a doubt we are named after Christ – not absent from us but dwelling within us; in other words: provided that we believe in him and that, in turn and mutuality, we are a second Christ to one another, doing for our neighbors as Christ does for us.” (“The Freedom of a Christian,” The Annotated Luther, Vol. 1: The Roots of Reform, Timothy J. Wengert, Ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 525).

Come down Zaccheus!  Come down from the doubting tree, the tree of idolatry, the wealth tree, the tree of religion.  Come down and receive the Gospel:  Jesus invites us into loving relationship with himself, and thereby into loving relationship with our neighbors.

Did we in our own strength confide

Our striving would be losing

Were not the Right Man on our side

The Man of God’s own choosing

Dost as who that may be?

Christ Jesus it is He

Lord Sabaoth His name

From age to age the same

And he must win the battle

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

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Persistence in Prayer

October 23rd, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 18:9-14

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God be merciful to me, a sinner.  I tell you, this man went down to his home justified.

Yeats in Poetic Prayer

 (for confession)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

 (WB Yeats, 1919)

 Persistence in prayer is difficult, in our age.

Prayer in Luke

 We can readily appreciate the stark rigor of Jesus’ Lukan parables.  A Samaritan whose kindness illumines the limits of religion…A rich man who builds bigger barns, but whose soul suddenly is required…A figure of a fig tree, fruitless, but spared for yet another year in hope…A marriage feast wherein humility is tested and the poor are fed…Another banquet to which many are invited but few respond, and out to highways and byways the invitation goes…A lost sheep—found!…A lost coin…found!  A lost, prodigal son…found!…A truly dishonest steward whose wiliness shines out…A rich man who turns his back on a poor man, and roasts in hell for it… a persistent widow whose raises her voice to an unjust judge…Talent wasted and invested…A vineyard stolen by tenants…and, today, a publican persistent in prayer.

What drove Luke, alone, to remember or construct these parables?  The lengthening years, without ultimate victory, since the cross?  The long decades of living without Jesus?  The uncertainties of institution and culture and citizenship and multiple responsibilities?  The daily stresses of managing a budget?  It is the primitive church that can give an example for us today in our time of anxiety. They waited for Jesus to return.  And he delayed.  And he delays, still.  It is enough to make you lose heart.

Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed

By schism rent asunder by heresy distressed

Yet saints their watch are keeping their cry goes up ‘howlong’?

And soon the night of weeping will be the morn of song.

 Persistence in prayer takes faith, to be in faith.

 The publican—the tax collector—looks hard into the mirror. God be merciful to me—a sinner!

 He uses a word that we avoid.  Sin is utterly personal.  This we understand.  The covenantal commands of the decalogue have a personal consequence (Exodus 20). As grace touches ground in Jesus Christ, sin touches sand in personal confessions.  We get lost.  It is our nature, east of eden.  We get lost in sex without love:  lust.  We get lost in consumption without nourishment:  gluttony.  We get lost in accumulation without investment:  avarice.  We get lost in rest without weariness, in happiness without struggle:  sloth.  We get lost in righteousness without restraint:  anger.  We get lost in desire without ration or respect:  envy.  And most regularly, we get lost in integrity without humility:  pride.  If you have never known lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy or pride you are not a sinner, you are outside the cloud of sin, and you need no repentance.  (You also may not be quite human).

It is a long wait.  And that is just the point.  Like the bridesmaids who waited with lamps trimmed, we feel the length of the wait.  But we can wait, together.  We can offer together a common prayer.  We can slowly, stumblingly give ourselves over to persistence in prayer, to the forms of religious practice that bear meaning, to the life of the church, for all its foibles, wherein we learn the grammar of grace, and where through we face down the evils of this age.

Persistence in prayer is challenging, in our tradition.

Techne

Virginia Woolf’s serious joke that ‘on or about December 1910 human character changed’ was a hundred years premature.  Human character changed on or about December 2010, when everyone, it seemed, started carrying a smartphone.  For the first time, practically anyone could be found intruded upon, not only at some fixed address at home or at work, but everywhere at all times.  Before this everyone could expect, in the course of the day, some time at least in which to be left alone, unobserved, unsustained and unburdened  by public or familial roles.  That era now came to an end.

 When the smartphone brings messages, alerts, and notifications that invite instant responses—and induces anxiety if those messages fail to arrive—everyone’s sense of time changes, and attention that used to be focused more or less distantly on, say, tomorrow’s mail is concentrated in the present moment…You cannot reduce your engagement with the past and future without diminishing yourself, without becoming ‘more tenuous’.

(Edward Mendelson, NYRB, 6/23/16, 34)

Persistence in prayer is challenging, in our culture.

Rather than another hour of email, or on our smartphone, perhaps we could walk, alone, quiet, and talk to God.  Tell it to God.  Pray.  Our overcapacity in email is a direct consequence of our under-investment in prayer.

Prayer in Life:  Charles Taylor

One advantage of a life of study, the life of the mind, the college years, is the chance to pick out some new theological eye glasses.  Prayerfully consider, for example, the thought of Charles Taylor, our Montreal philosopher.  Taylor explores background conditions:  social imaginaries, moral perspectives, the cultural influences we sometimes take for granted.   His central emphasis is the exploration of ‘fullness’: an experience of what counts most in life.   Taylor views the spiritual shape of the present age through the lenses of the work of Ivan Illich, Charles Peguy, G M Hopkins, and I Berlin.  He has no interest in a return to an untroubled harmony, which is utterly unattainable, and is even a kind of culpable weakness.  Taylor seeks a new more nuanced map of the ideological terrain all about us. Fullness…

I prayerfully remember the summer, thinking in prayer of Taylor. When I see my granddaughter Ellie tubing behind a motor boat for the first time, I have the joyful fullness of watching her as a remembrance of her mother, our daughter, Emily skiing on the same lake.   When our youngest granddaughter, Hannah, wakes up from a nap; or when her brother Charlie, ‘screwing his courage to the sticking post’ tries tubing himself; or when their cousin Sally cries out wanting her dad, our son, Benjamin; or when Jan comes home as happy as Yogi Bear, her bucket full of blackberries; or when the blue lake and blue sky outside our blue cottage call out the name of the Blue God; then there is fullness, in a summer hue.

Charles Taylor, a great Canadian, has something he rails against:  subtraction (of transcendence) theories.  That is, he fights against the late modern urge to bracket out such transcendence. Transcendence in ordinary life, in society, in erotic love, in a new poetic language—Taylor works to make sufficient cultural space for transcendence.  That is what we are about at Marsh Chapel, too.  Taylor affirms not disenchantment but re-enchantment: claims for belief, for God, a sense of the soul and salvation, over against the modern or late modern experience of malaise, ennui, uncertainty, meaninglessness, melancholy, despair.   Here is his question:  ‘Where in the culture of expressive individualism is the sacred?’  To this end, Taylor examines a kind of ‘diffusive Christianity’, a habit of moving between belief and unbelief, an emphasis on believing not belonging.  His work heralds a new age of religious searching, not a decline in religious belief and practice, but a plurality of forms of belief and unbelief, transitory and fragile, existing within a range of cross pressures within the ongoing contest of religiosity and materialism.  He criticizes what he calls ‘excarnation’ (a shift from taking the body seriously, head over other).  In all, Taylor is the evangelist for the joy of everyday relationships, conduct, and experiences, his ear tuned to the sacred, his eye searching out the range of the sacred canopy, his mind alive to spirit, his heart given over to a hymnic celebration of our aspiration to wholeness.  His work is a hymn to and of persistence in prayer.*

*(Charles Taylor, as seen by Philip Amerson, Robert Allan Hill, and Michael Morgan (Indiana University) in conversation

 We fear, and try to find our security in larger automobiles or drug supplies or stock collections or homes or layers of disconnection, gated communities of the mind and heart.  But security comes not through possession, but through relationship.  Do you want to be safe and secure?  Invest yourself in a lifetime of building and keeping healthy relationships.  There is your security, where neither moth nor rust consumes.

 Such persistence in prayer needs new theological eyes, in our era.

Persistence in Prayer

Ernest Fremont Tittle was the greatest Methodist preacher of his mid twentieth century generation.  Tougher than Sockman, truer than Peale, Tittle preached in Chicago until he died at his desk, writing about Luke:

There is special need for persistence in prayer when the object sought is the redressing of social wrongs.  God will see justice done if the human instruments of his justice to not give way to weariness, impatience, or discouragement, but persevere in prayer and labor for the improvement of world conditions. Here we can learn from the scientist.  Medical research is a prayer for the relief of suffering, the abolition of disease, the conservation of life—a prayer in which the scientist perseveres in the face of whatever odds, whatever darkness and delay.  More especially we can learn from great religious leader like Luther, Wesley, Wilberforce, Shaftsbury, who year upon year prayed and fought for the causes to which they dedicated their lives.  The need for persistence in prayer arises not only from the intransigence of the oppressor, but also from the immaturity and imperfection of the would-be reformer.  We have a lot to learn and much in ourselves to overcome before we can be used of God as instruments of his justice.  Recognizing this, Gandhi spent hours each day in prayer and meditation, and maintained a weekly day of silence.

Persistence in prayer takes practice, for those who seek to resist injustice.

A Common Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

We offer a common prayer, a prayer that our families, torn apart by abuse and distrust and anger and jealousy and unkindness, will sit at a long Thanksgiving table, this autumn, and share the turkey and pass the potatoes, and slice the pie, and, if grudgingly, show kindness and pity to one another.

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

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

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

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

Application in Prayer

Talk to God walking on the river, in the woods, on the beach, once a day:  do not use email and other such modes when a silent prayer will suffice.

Go to church, once a week, for sermon and music and eucharist, but also to see different others, to feel different neighbors, to place yourself in the community of God’s people.

Give away 10% of what you earn, to the church you love, to the mission you admire, to the school that taught you, to the place you where help meets hurt.

Read.  Read every sentence, when you read, and think it through.  Read your Bible.  Read a good newspaper.  Read.

What shall we say?  How shall we pray?

Pray always

Labor Omnia Vincit

Do not lose heart

Work conquers all

Pray always

All of us are better when we are loved

Do not lose heart

Early to bed and early to bed and early to rise

Pray always

A stitch in time

Do not lose heart

Waste not want not

Pray always

Rome was not built in a day

Do not lose heart

Only the devil has no time

To let things grow

Pray always

Persistence in prayer begins with a decision to pray ‘without ceasing’.

God be merciful to me, a sinner.  I tell you, this man went down to his home justified.

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

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Persistence

October 16th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 18:1-8

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‘Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart’

 Persistence amid Confusion and Timidity

 Tuesday you may have been driving mid-day out over the BU bridge, and into Cambridge.  If so, on that bright crisp autumn day, you would have run into a delay.

Along the river, remember, there are swans, many white swans, encamped alongside and under the bridge.   But they do not exclusively sojourn riverside.  Sometimes, by the by, they saunter out, due north and west, themselves headed for Cambridge, or at least a little part of Cambridge.  Ah, the allure of the other side of the river, and all its Cambridge delights—colleges, students, green grass, bicycle lanes and endowments.  Sweet.

The River Charles is deep and wide, Alleluia.  Thirty-eight billion on the other side, Alleluia. (J)

Tuesday, which was a BU Monday by the way, but still a Tuesday, you perhaps came to rest awaiting the green light.  In the head of the car queue there was an elderly couple, somewhat timid, surely nice, perhaps kindly Midwestern folks, and the light turned.  But the swans had made their way into the intersection, and the kindly couple was loath to disturb them.  The car, and so the subaltern many cars behind, waited for another light change.   A dozen or two confused birds crossed, and then, just as the light changed again, they turned and walked back, solemn in waddling procession, one by one, ‘beginning with the eldest’ as in John 8.  Again, our dear Midwestern guests made no honking, threatening, aggressive moves, and waited, and again the light changed.

You might want to imagine what sorts of reactions to all of this were then occasioned and vigorously offered by the line-up of cars eager to leave Boston and enter the Shangri La of Cambridge.  We Bostonians are such a patient, calm, irenic crew, especially when behind the wheel, don’t you know…

It was not pretty.

After another light change or three, somehow, by grace, the swans elected to return home to their nests and spots and cribs along the River Charles.   Driving, say, then, along Memorial Drive, perhaps headed to visit a friend and parishioner in a nursing home in Watertown, you may have mused, bemused, about what you saw, swan and car, light and traffic, intersection and interruption, and mainly, in equal balance, the timidity of the lead drivers and the confusion of the birds in procession.  One part timidity, one part confusion, or one part confusion and one part timidity, in largely equal measure.  Confusion and timidity.

You may have been reminded of many church meetings, where the two, confusion and timidity are also often found in equal measure.

You may have been reminded, in our season, of the choices made in cable network so-called journalism, where the two, confusion and timidity, have been found in full this year, in equal measure.

You may have been reminded of the cultural demise all around us, to the shame of us all, the acceptance of bullying and demagoguery, the normalization of vulgarity and sexism, the accommodation of buffoonery and megalomania, our willingness to have our children and grandchildren so surrounded in a culture careening into a nihilistic abyss.  ‘Yes, I really got him.  Low energy.  That was a one day kill. Words are beautiful things.’  Can you hear that?

Institutions are far more fragile than we sometimes think, especially the bigger ones.  They all require trust, commitment, integrity, self-sacrifice, and humility on the part of their leaders, or over time they disintegrate.  It is not just the processes, the systems, the organizations and structures that matter, it is the people.  No amount of systemic adjustment can ever replace the fundamental need, across a culture, for good people. No wise process has any chance against unwise people. Do not assume that institutions that have been healthy will always be so. Do not presume that free speech in newspapers, that due process in political parties, that honest regard for electoral results simply exist.  They do or they don’t.  It depends on the people who inhabit, support, and lead them.  Beware a time like ours when the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity (Yeats).

Giving ultimate loyalty to penultimate reality is sin at its depth.  To support an organization at the cost of honor, of integrity, of honesty is to give ultimate loyalty to penultimate reality.  That is, to support a political party at the cost of honor, integrity and honesty is to give ultimate loyalty to penultimate reality.  This is sin at its depth.  That is, to support a denomination at the cost of honor, integrity and honesty is to give ultimate loyalty to penultimate reality.  In the hour of judgment, the organization—party or church or other—depends on the courage and integrity of individuals to resist idolatrous loyalty to penultimate reality and to respond with courage and integrity to ultimate authority.  You cannot serve God and Mammon. Giving ultimate loyalty to penultimate reality is sin at its depth.

Persistence in Jeremiah

 In 1980 with 12 Cornell students, and for a full year, we studied Jeremiah.  Two of those then young graduate students are now teaching at Brown University, and are part of the extended Marsh Chapel family.  Last year they reminded me that the group had asked to study Jeremiah, high above Cayuga’s waters, and I had wondered ‘whether they were ready for him’.  They said they were, and they were.  In all these intervening years, with student and campus groups from Cornell, McGill, North Country Community, Syracuse, Lemoyne, Colgate Rochester, the University of Rochester, United Seminary and, now, Boston University, we have returned in group study to Jeremiah.  Never, though, have I been more grateful for Jeremiah’s evocation of the stark suffering divine love of God, for Jeremiah’s unswerving realism, than this fall.  In the autumn of demagoguery and its partial acceptance by America, I kneel and kiss the ground, thankful for Jeremiah and his divine human realism.

I am eternally thankful for Jeremiah’s realism about what horrors can befall people and a people when they forget their identity.

I am eternally thankful for Jeremiah’s realism about what happens to a people whose leaders have and live values diametrically opposed to the nation’s own values.

I am eternally thankful, painful as it is to hear the words, for Jeremiah’s realism about how naïve in selfishness a people can become, and how earth shattering that foolishness can be.

I am eternally thankful for Jeremiah’s realism about the crucial importance of diplomacy rather than violence, and about what happens when megalomaniacal leaders mock diplomacy.

I am eternally thankful, if such can be said, for Jeremiah’s own wretched suffering as he watched his beloved country exchange their birthright of justice for a mess of material pottage.

I am eternally thankful for the clarity, not confusion, for the courage, not timidity, of his voice ringing out across 25 centuries to say to you in a way you cannot avoid:  if you follow leadership that is immoral, unjust, unloving, unwise, you will get what you deserve, and the desserts will be disastrous.  In real time.

I am eternally thankful for Jeremiah’s pitiless reproach for people whose own religion bluntly teaches them to tell truth, honor others, seek justice, protect the poor, who then select leaders who say they have done and will do the opposite, and then are proven to have done.  We have been warned.

I am eternally thankful for Jeremiah’s realism which—did you hear?—includes at the end, encompasses at twilight, for all the suffering the divine love endures, including Jeremiah’s own slave death and unmarked grave in Egypt, a grace note, a ringing bell, a song sung, a word spoken, a hope, that one day ‘says the Lord,  I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah… No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord…

 

Persistence in Luke

 So we arrive today in the confusion and timidity of our time, at the town court of Nazareth, the honorable UnJ Judge presiding.   Hear ye, hear ye.  Hizzoner awaits.  And Behold the Lord Jesus Christ dressed today in the apparel of a poor woman.  For those who, rightly, feel anxiety or despair or depression at the rampant sexism now latent and palpable, revealed by the events of this year and autumn across our decaying culture, take heart:  behold the Lord Jesus Christ dressed today in the raiment of an importunate, a persistent poor widow.

Yes, in our autumn of anxiety, we can readily appreciate the Scripture’s utter realism.    Luke too needed to remember that Jesus told them about “losing heart”.  This phrase communicates, in a time like ours. Greater souls in easier times have felt such ennui.  So we are not surprised today to hear reports of increased therapy, medication and consumption of comfort food.  We can feel the depression.

Jesus pointed to the Town Court of Nazareth and therein to the simple figure of a persistent woman.  See her at the bench.  Watch her in the aisle.  Listen to her steady voice.  Feel her stolid forbearance.  Says she:  “Grant me justice.”

‘The widow’s untiring pursuit of justice is translated into the ‘faith’ that should mark the church’s welcome of the awaited Son of Man’ (Ringe)

In Nazareth town court, all rise hear ye hear ye the honorable U J Judge presiding, a persistent woman employs time and voice.  You have time and you have voice.  Like Christ himself, she implores the implacable world to grant justice.  Like Christ himself, she comes on a donkey of tongue and patience.  Like Christ himself, she continues to plead, to intercede.  Like Christ himself, she importunes the enduring injustice of this world.  Like Christ himself she prays without ceasing.  Like Christ himself she persists.  She is an example to us of how we should use whatever time we have and whatever breath remains–to pray.  It is prayer that is the most realistic and wisest repose of the anxious of this autumn of exasperation.  By prayer we mean formal prayer, yes (more here next week). But by prayer we mean, too, the persistent daily leaning toward justice, the continuous pressure in history from the voice of the voiceless and the time of the time bound.

Notice, waiting with us, this poor widow.  She lacks power, authority, status, position, wealth.  She has her voice and all the time in the world.  Like Jesus Christ, whose faith comes by hearing and hearing by the preaching of the word.

If we are not to lose heart, in the seemingly unending search for justice, we shall need to pray always, to “relax into the truth”, and to give ourselves over to the divine presence in our midst.  To give ourselves over to a real, common hope, and to be clear, not confused, courageous not timid about our hope:

Persistence in Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

We await a common hope, a hope that our families, torn apart by abuse and distrust and anger and jealousy and unkindness, will sit at a long Thanksgiving table, this autumn, and share the turkey and pass the potatoes, and slice the pie, and, if grudgingly, show kindness and pity to one another.

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

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

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

Persistence Today

 We hear the call to persist today.  It is a daily practice, a daily discipline.

An example of persistence, in the figure of an importunate widow.

By the by, that drive on Tuesday, amid confusion and timidity, you recall, ended in the presence of a poor widow, now 100, one of your dear sisters, residing across the river in a nursing home.  100 years of growth, and travel from the west to the east coast, and faculty spouse leadership in fresh and salt water schools, and administrative guidance and correction of several General Conferences, church meetings, Bishops and the writing of the 1988 Book of Discipline, and motherhood and sisterhood and discipleship…and, through it all, persistence. ‘For what should we pray?’ she was asked.  ‘Pray for all those who are hurting’, she replied.

‘Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart’

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

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Good Advice from the Most Unlikely

October 9th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 17:11-19

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The word “leprosy” in the Bible refers to more than one type of skin disease, not just Hansen’s disease, which is what is commonly thought of as leprosy when the work is mentined.  All the biblical diseases of that name are similar in that they are fearful diseases:  they are thought to be highly contagious, they cause physical disfigurement to greater or lesser degree, and they cause afflicted persons to be banned from society until they can prove themselves healed.  The two leprosy stories in our scriptures this morning seem fairly straightforward and turn out well:  Naaman and the ten lepers are healed.  However, as theologian and disability activist Sharon V. Betcher has pointed out for us before, the healing stories in the Bible are not only or not even about healing.  They are also social commentary and teaching stories as well.

As we are invited to explore the story of Naaman further, for instance, we note that he is a powerful and rich man.  He has access to captured Israelite children and is able to give a young girl to his wife as her servant.  He has other servants himself.  When he wants to give a gift, he is able to give away ten sets of garments, 756 pounds of silver, and 151 pounds of gold.  His success in life has come from the favor of his king:  as commander of the Aramean army he has won a great victory over the army of Israel in the series of border wars and raids that Aram and Israel conduct against one another.  The King of Aram is pleased, of course, but see how the writer of II Kings phrases the victory:  it is by Naaman that THE LORD had given victory to Aram.  This is the first sign that this is not just a healing story;  it is also a story about the reach of God’s power through all lands and all kinds of people, even an Aramean general.

And through a captive servant girl.  She is the one who tells Naaman’s wife about the prophet Elisha, who at this time is in Samaria, the northern part of Israel, and who can cure Naaman of his leprosy.  And Naaman’s wife tells Naaman.  It is a measure of Naaman’s desire to be rid of the disease that he listens.  Female captive foreign children and wives of the time, especially those who suggest to their master and husband that he go to the prophet of another people’s God who after all did not give that people the victory,  did not usually sway the decisions of rich, powerful, commanders of men,  But Naaman not only listens, he goes to his king.  The king of Aram, who after all wants Naaman at his best, not only gives him permission to go to the foreign prophet, but smooths his way with a letter of introduction to the king of Israel.

So Naaman takes his gold and silver and garments and horses and chariots and servants and letter and makes the trip to Elisha’s house.  He expects to deal with a professional prophet like those in Aram, who control their prophecy, able to say and do as they wish, and who have a responsibility to please their betters.  Instead, Naaman gets Elisha, who does not even come out to greet him or put on a show, but sends a messenger to tell him to wash seven times in the Jordan.  Naaman is so insulted that he misinterprets what the messenger says, and thinks that Elisha only offers him a ritual cleansing.  But his servants, who were not in a rage and who were able to listen to the messenger properly, convince Naaman to do what Elisha instructed.  Again, it is a measure of Naaman’s desire to be rid of his leprosy that he listens, and changes his rage and his mind in front of his servants and military personnel.  He washes, “according to the word of the man of God”, and is healed.  So he is no longer disfigured and no longer isolated.  But this is not just a healing story.  It is a story of conversion as well.  Because of his need, Naaman throughout has converted his power, wealth, and position to a position of acceptance of help and advice, help and advice that comesfrom the most unlikely people:  a female captive child, his wife, his servants, a disrespectful foreign prophet, all of whom had to manage him up to get him into the water.  And at the last, he makes a final conversion, to belief in the God of Israel as the God of all the earth.  For the writer of II Kings, Namaan is not just healed, he is truly whole.  And it doesn’t end there.  Later in II Kings there is the story of how the Aramean king, who now knows about Elisha, realizes that Elisha is working to advise the king of Israel.  Because of what Elisha does in a certain situation that there is no loss of life for the Arameans, the King of Aram stop the border wars and raids against Israel.  There are many kinds of healing.  And of conversion.

As we are invited to explore our second story, we notice that all ten of the lepers address Jesus as “Master”. They do in fact obey him when he tell them to go to the priest, and they are healed in the going, before they even reach the priest.  But nine of them, who we assume from the story were Jews, did not turn back.  Only one of them did, and he was a Samaritan, not only a foreigner but someone considered by Jews to worship wrong.  Yet he praises God loudly, falls on his face before Jesus, and thanks Jesus for his healing of body and his restoration to society.  The other nine may have b3een cured of their leprosy.  But the Samaritan is not only healed, he as a foreigner who worships wrong exemplifies true faith, faith in Jesus and in the power of the God of Jesus.  A better translation would have Jesus say to him that his faith does not just make him well, his faith saves him.  In his obedience, but even more in his conversion to praise and gratitude for God’s free gift, he is an example of the true disciple, of one who is truly whole.

Our theme for the Fall here at Marsh is conversation.  Conversation involves both speaking and listening from all parties involved.  Who is invited to take part in the conversation is also an important point.  In conversations about conflict transformation, for instance, one of the best practices is to notice who has not been invited.  This is because, if some of the people involved in the conflict are not in the conversation, their insights will not be available.  Or, and perhaps even more importantly, the uninvited will be angry about their exclusion and so the conflict will continue even if the invited people come to an agreement.  This is especially true in conversations about the dis-eases of our time, fearful that can disfigure our minds and souls if not our bodies.  We all know the categories:   race, sex, class, economic status, gender preference, climate change, body type, war, normality, religion.  Dis-eases that can have us isolate ourselves in barricaded ideological and social compounds,  lest we be contaminated by the change and inclusion.  Some of us now, in our country and in some of our faith traditions including my own, some of us actually find it is easy and acceptable to make others figurative lepers, to consider them the cause of our dis-eases.  to castigate them as not normal, wall them out, persecute their faith as wrong, take away or try to take away their agency and freedom,  love them only to a certain point in the name of God, deny our shared humanity with them.  No conversation at all with these outcasts.  No talking.  No listening.

Naaman and the people Jesus was talking to were instead invited by God to expand their conversation, to listen as well as talk.  They were invited to listen enough to take good advice and good example from those who were the most unlikely people to have it to offer.  But when they did listen, and acted on what they had heard, they were not just healed of their dis-ease.  They were converted, to a new relationship with God, with themselves, and with their neighbors.

The stories of Naaman and the thankful Samaritan invite us to expand our conversations too.  Not just with the rich and powerful or with each other.  But with those who we might consider most unlikely:  marginalized people, foreigners – whoever that is for us, people whose allegiances or worship we might think are wrong, those we might consider “the help”, people who don’t take us as seriously as we think they should.  Conversation sounds simple, but it might not be easy.  It probably depends on the measure of our desire to be rid of our dis-ease.

On the other hand, in conversation with those who are different from us we might just find some good advice or a good example.  We might find some healing, some wholeness, some praise and some gratitude, some truer discipleship.  We might find ourselves converted, to a new way of being with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors.  Before our dis-eases  disfigure our minds souls bodies and completely cut us off.  Before our dis-eases kill us and the rest of creation.  Conversation, even with the most unlikely people, is possible.  Thanks be to God, who gives us this chance to be whole.  May we choose to accept it and act on it, to talk and to listen with one another with praise and thanksgiving.  Amen.

–Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

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The Sacrament of Conversation

October 2nd, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 17:5-10

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Sacrament:  Conversation

Our theme at Marsh this year is Conversation.  Sacrament means mystery.  2 Sacraments and 5 sacramental rites shape our life of faith.  John Wesley named 5 means of grace including conversation (Scripture, Prayer, Eucharist\Baptism, Fasting, Conversation).   Vancouver 1983, WCC, ‘in Christ there is no East or West’.

Conversation:  Sacrament

Iva.  A Winter Sunday.  So angry.  (Janitor).  My PhD that year.  ‘Of course, you know, they have PhD’s.  I should be more understanding.  They have PhD’s.  You really can’t expect much. (J).   Learning is no substitute for meaning.  Making of living is no substitute for leading a life.  Your field work is no substitute for your domestic duties.  Learning is good and very good, but it will not alone lead you to meaning.  Our business at Marsh Chapel is not talent but grace.  We would rather have untalented grace than graceless talent.  As Wesley, ‘we would rather throw over all the libraries in the world than lose one soul’.

Lamentations

 Jeremiah may or may not have written this. Catharsis of grief and despair is the aim of the poems (we can use this).  They are all acrostics (facilitates memorization).  ‘The pent up emotion  of a people who had lost practically everything that belonged to their former way of life IBD’.  Historical faith vs. historical actuality. ‘What is the meaning of the terrible calamities that have overtaken us?’  A new, firmer faith emerges, dominated by strong convictions:  responsibility for sin; the disciplinary value of suffering; the absolute justice and abiding love of God; the inscrutability of God’s ways; the unconquerable trust of the believer; the necessity of patience.

Luke

Your field work is no substitute for your domestic duties.  Men and parenting.  Students and parents.  Adults and mature parents.  Civil Society including church and worship.

 Slavery is here used as a positive analogy.  It is Biblical and dominical, ‘Jesus says…’ Should we then affirm slavery?  This is the hermeneutic of the evangelical Christians who use 6 verses in all of Scripture to support bigotry against gays.  The Bible has a history, too, as do you.

 You are not finished once you have recited the conjugations, written out the periodic table, aced introduction to computer science, memorized the ten presidents of BU and the 44 of the USA, and defined the teleological suspension of the ethical.

 Faith as a mustard seed.  ‘Faith that mountains can move’.  Hyperbole (eye, pluck it out, etc).  The way of discipleship:  worship, prayer, study, tithing, faithfulness, charity, hospitality.  ‘Service!’  At your service.  At your disposal.  Ministry is service. Ministry is to put yourself at another’s disposal.

 Condition according to fact (even if you only had faith the size of a seed it would be enough, but you have a whole lot more than that!)

Spirit

Spirit:  The church as the bride of Christ: conversation, divine and human.

We are here with you because we are here for you (repeat).  We have come from many regions of the world and many ranges of your past experience in order to be present here, to share your presence, and our presence with you.  Here with you, we are here for you.

And yet, quite soon, we will not be present, at least most of us.  You will go off on your own for another week.    We will need to give you over, and to give over to…Another Presence,  God’s Presence.  God’s presence, spirit, or, as the reading for today names it, God’s Abiding in us.  As will you, day by day, so will we need to trust in…Another Presence. 

You will sense the warm breeze, the sunlit horizon, the abiding grace of God’s Presence by its fruit (Galatians 5:23).  Another Presence, of which you become aware, in your daily life together, by sensing the fruit of this presence.  God’s love abides in us and is made whole in us, through these marks, these footprints, these touches of grace.

In Love.  Love is the attentive gift of time, as in the course of a lifetime of faithfulness—in family, in friendship, in work, in marriage.   In Love.

In Joy.  Joy is happy embrace—physical, mental, spiritual, soulful—morning and evening.  In Joy.

In Peace.  Peace is the gift—all these are pure gifts of God—of real listening, listening with a full smile and a glad heart.  In Peace.

In Patience. You need persistence, the accelerator, and patience, the break, to make it over the mountains and through the deserts, and across the great plains of life.  Said the Buddha:  patience is self-compassion which gives you equanimity.  In Patience.

In Kindness.  Kindness is the long distance run, the gift of a gracious long distance perspective, known in part in the openness to forgiveness.  In Kindness.

In Goodness.  Real Goodness bursts forth in generosity.  You only have what you give away, and you only truly possess what you have the grace and freedom to offer to someone else.  What you give is what you have.  In Goodness.

In Faith.  Faith is a gift, like all other signs of abiding love.  Faith is the capacity to withstand what and when we cannot understand (repeat).  When you face struggle, challenge, difficulty, may this gift be yours by divine grace.  In Faith.

In Gentleness.  Tea, sunset, backrub, quiet, handholding, prayer, worship.  In Gentleness.

In Self-Control.  Self-Control, a gift of God’s Presence, guides you to work through any and all labors:  in care for family and extended family;  in stewardship of precious material wealth, never plentiful but always sufficient; in sensitivity in intimacy, sexuality, in preparing for an unforeseen future;  in the building of community—yes religious community, but also neighborhood, town, school, city, and a culture gradually amenable to faith.  In Self-Control.

You will sense the warm breeze, the sunlit horizon, the abiding grace of God’s Presence by its fruit (Galatians 5:23).  Another Presence, of which you become aware, in your daily life together, by sensing the fruit of this presence.  God’s love abides in us and is made whole in us, through these marks, these footprints, these touches of grace.

Into  Another Presence, into Another’s Presence, we send you, for another week.  With Ruth may you say: ‘Wither thou goest I will go, wither thou lodgest I will lodge, they people shall be my people, and thy God my God.’

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

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The Bach Experience

September 25th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

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Luke 16:19-31

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Dean Hill

 In music and word, again this Lord’s Day, we worship Almighty God, and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified.  For ten years now in this manner, twice a term, we have sought to preach the good news and offer the gift of faith, a gift now offered to you, the hearer, you, the listener, by way of the confluence of music and word, chorus and sermon, Bach and Experience.  To our knowledge, this sort of offering is sui generis, unique.  A woman, say, listening today in southern New Hampshire, struggling to interpret hard news from North Carolina and Washington State, may hear us and the offering of faith.  Faith in a recognition of the wonder of creation, God the Creator.  Faith in a beginning step alongside the promise of baptism, God the Redeemer.  Faith, to start, in the sudden exclamation by spirit—I exist! Here! Now!–, God the Sustainer.

Faith is a gift.  In the gift of faith we find the courage to face death.  Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.  In the gift of faith, we find the courage to face life.  Life in all its turmoil, cacophony, and difficulty.  To take another step.  That may be all our listener in southern New Hampshire needs from the gift of faith today, as Sunday morning slips into Sunday afternoon, and the burdens of the rest of the day and the week to come.  A sense of love, at the margins, a sense of possibility, though far off, a sense of promise, hidden but real.   Baptism is a sign of the gift of faith, and faith is the courage to face death and life, to take another step, to walk ahead into the dark.  Bach sings faith and Jeremiah speaks faith and we attempt to weave the two together.

 Dr. Jarrett

Today’s cantata was composed by Bach for the Feast of St John observed in Leipzig on June 24 of 1724. The date makes Cantata 7 the third work composed in Bach’s second full cycle of cantatas for the church year. As we have come to expect from this particular cycle, many of these cantatas are closely connected to their chorale tunes, these tunes often appearing in the soprano part on long tones, directing and connecting the listener to the stories and teachings of the great hymns of the faith. Cantata 7 numbers among the important “chorale-cantatas” of this cycle, and draws compositional inspiration from Martin Luther’s 1541 hymn “Christ our Lord came to the Jordan.” Of the cantata’s seven movements, the first and last movements, sung by the choir, take their text directly from Luther, while the inner solo movements are paraphrased from Luther’s inner verses and attributed to Bach himself.

The story of John the Baptizer and of Jesus’s baptism is found in the third chapter of Matthew and Luke, and right away in the first chapter of Mark and John. These accounts mark the beginning of Christ’s ministry on earth, and lead ultimately to his Passion and Resurrection. Each account bears the familiar imagery of water, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and the voice of the God from the opened Heavens declaring pride and pleasure in his only Son. When viewed together, the fullness of the Trinity is richly depicted in the Baptism story, and Christian teaching through these symbols is a clear public anointing and forecast of the teachings and purposes of Jesus in his earthly ministry.

If we look back just a few verses, and focus on John, we find similarities in these accounts as well. John is depicted as something of a wild, ruffian whose prophesies excite and call his audience to prepare for the one who will come and will purify the world by fire. This is the important connection for Bach as he sets out to write his musical sermon for the day.

Water imagery abounds throughout the cantata, bubbling, rippling, even crashing in what Craig Smith has called Bach’s La Mer. Throughout the cantata, the purity and clarity of the water is tinged and colored by the awareness that Jesus’s blood – that is to say, his Passion – transforms the water with the purifying zeal of the refiner’s fire. Let’s take a closer look.

The Cantata opens with a monumental, even epic, setting of the first verse of Luther’s hymn. You’ll find the chorale tune in long notes, not in the soprano part, but submerged in the tenor part with old-style polyphony in the other four parts all around. The vocal parts considered alone proceed with an austerity that reminds the listener to look up from the Jordan to the Cross. Musically, the remarkable material here is the freely composed instrumental ritornelli that open, close, and punctuate each of the nine phrases of the chorale tune. Our program annotator Brett Kostrzewski reminds us that Jesus’s arrival at the Jordan for baptism marks the onset of his adult ministry, and Baroque conventions provide a stately French overture with dotted and regal rhythms for any auspicious arrival. And so the cantata opens with strong French overture rhythms in the upper strings and oboes in a harmonic sequence that outlines the austere modal colors of the chorale tune. But one immediately hears the Jordan lapping at the hem of Jesus’s garment in the cello and bass figurations that support the upper material. This short and strict two bar phrase freezes harmonically as the violin soloist’s second theme figurations depict more churning of the purifying Jordan waters. The cello’s original motif is transferred to the upper supporting strings, further suspending progress. The overall effect is one of churning, expectation, even foreboding.

The three arias that comprise the corpus of the cantata paraphrase the inner verse of Luther’s hymn. In the first, sung without preparatory recitative, the bass calls every believer to baptism, not with water alone, but with the Word and Spirit of God. One imagines a good Methodist baptism in the sprinkling heard in the cheerful accompaniment. The central tenor recitative and aria connect all of the Gospel images with fiery virtuosity on full display from two solo violins and the bravura of the tenor part. The words of God in the moment of Jesus’s baptism are sung in the second half of the tenor recitative as if to provide full charge for the purification to come. The zeal of the aria’s opening imagery softens at the mention of the Dove. [Be careful – the German word for Dove (Taube) is only one letter away for the word for Baptism (Taufe).] The bass returns for a recitative that reminds us of Jesus’s call for his disciples to teach and baptize throughout the world. The words of Jesus are set in a manner the presages Bach’s musical treatment of the words of Jesus in the Matthew Passion with strings ‘halo-ing’ the text in red letters. The final aria for alto soloist begins notably without any introduction. To me, this underscores both the connection to Jesus’s commandment, but also creates a greater sense of urgency for this text. The message here is a direct exhortation of the purifying power of faith and baptism. The final movement is a standard four-part chorale, but the amount of theology packed into this verse is worth noting – here Luther connects everything: original Sin and our own inheritance of sin, the redemptive grace of Christ’s Passion, all forged by the purifying power of personal devotion, faith and baptism.

Dean Hill

 The beauty of the music this morning is itself a sort of baptism.  We sometimes long to take a spiritual shower, to bathe ourselves in the living waters of grace, faith, hope, life, and love.   Especially, it might be stressed, on any college campus today, the need for spiritual cleansing in the midst of sub cultural murkiness, is continual.  We need both judgment and mercy, both honesty and kindness, both prophetic upbraid and parabolic uplift.  And we get them, thanks be to God, in Jeremiah and in Luke.  But look!  They come upside down.  In a stunning reversal, kindness and gentle hope are the hallmarks of our passage from Jeremiah, while wrath and hellfire explode out of Luke.

Listen again to the voice of the prophet, one of the great, strange voices in all of history and life, one of the great, strange voices, in all of Holy Writ.  Jeremiah.  All is lost, in Judah, as Jeremiah addresses Zedekiah the King.  You will be a slave in Babylon, King Zedekiah.  You will be given into the hand of your sworn, mortal enemy, and so too will be the fate of your city, your temple, your people, and your country, King Zedekiah.  BUT.  NONETHELESS. AND YET.  These are resurrection words.  BUT. NONETHELESS. NEVERTHELESS.  STILL.  EVEN SO.  And Jeremiah put his money where his mouth is.

In this season of cultural demise and decay across our country, we benefit from the harsh challenge of Luke, and we benefit from the hopeful promise in Jeremiah.  You see, as we said some weeks ago, there is more Luke in Jeremiah than at first you think, and there is more Jeremiah in Luke than at first you think.

Sin is not doing concrete deeds of generous kindness.  Of all the Gospels, St. Luke most emphasizes this:  in the sermon on the plain; in the wording of the Lord’s prayer; in the parables of Sower, Samaritan, Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son, Dishonest Steward, Guests to the Wedding Banquet, the 10 healed Lepers; in the communal interest extended to Samaritans (those of different ethnic and religious background), to women (those whom tradition has marginalized), to the poor (those left forgotten in transaction and acquisition, to the lepers (those ritually and culturally excluded).  To read Luke is to be given eyes to see by contrast abroad in America today an emerging culture of denigration–denigration of immigrants, Muslims, and Mexicans–and to weep.  It is not enough, though it is true enough, to blame this almost exclusively on one particular candidate and one particular party. (repeat).  No, the mirror is held up for us all, for all of us in some measure have contributed to a culture that is uncultured, a rhetoric that is rancorous, a politics that is impolitic, an increasingly uncivil civil society, a rejection of hard-won experience and preparation in favor of careless entertainment and tomfoolery, a preference for cruelty over beauty, and a robust willingness to throw away hundreds of years of painstakingly crafted institutional commitments and social norms. You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but cannot fool all of the people all of the time.  Will Lincoln’s proverb hold in our time? You may well hope so, though you may well doubt so.   Finally, as Jeremiah looks upon Zedekiah, we confess, we get the leaders we deserve.

More personally, in the Methodist tradition which built Boston University, other than worship and the study of Scripture, the most cherished practice of faith is tithing:  annually giving away 10% of what you earn.  The reason for the centrality of tithing—today, sadly, honored largely in the breach, even in Methodism, now, to our shame—is set for us in today’s harsh parable of Lazarus and Dives, the harrowing horror of what it means to forget the needs of the poor.  Such forgetfulness is a persistent threat in the heart of all human life, but is especially challenging for those who have much, and so are sheltered, routinely, from the anxiety of poverty, the hurt of exclusion, the pain of hunger, and the despair of lack and loss.   Sin is the unwillingness on a weekly basis to practice generous kindness, to tithe.  Luke reminds us so.

And Jeremiah?  Now that his beloved country is in ruins (are we beginning across our own cultural landscape this fall to catch a glimpse of his woe?), Jeremiah does something great.  Remember:  the city is burned, the temple is wrecked, the population is slaughtered or in chains, and the nation is destroyed, soon to spend two generations in Babylon, by the rivers of Babylon, where to sit down and weep, as tormentors mock, ‘sing to us one of the songs of Zion’.  But Jeremiah buys a plot of land.  One day, a long time from now, he muses and prays, there will be some manner of restoration: ‘I cannot see it.  I cannot hear it.  I cannot prove it.  Sometimes I cannot believe it.  But, hoping against hope, I will buy some land, and someday, somebody, somehow will use it’.  This is faith:  to plant trees under which you will not sleep, to build churches in which you will not worship, to create schools in which you will not study, to teach students whose futures you will not know—and to buy land which you will not till.  But someone will.  Or at least, that is your hope.  That is why, as darkness is falling across a confused, frightened, and benighted land, you have done some things this fall.  You offered a morning prayer.  Good for you.  You sent a check to support some leader or candidate.  Good for you.  You went and volunteered to make contacts and calls on his or her behalf.  Good for you.  You spoke up and spoke out, regardless of the fan mail, family disdain, and other costs.  You did something.  Will it make a difference?  It may not.  But it does make a difference, for you, if for no one else.  Go and buy your little plot of land.

James Weldon Johnson gave us our marching orders, in words both of challenge and of hope, words that recognize straight-up what real harm can and has befallen people, especially his own people, and words that cling, even desperately, to a future, a future hope, something hoped for but not seen, and ever subject to neglect, amnesia, rejection, and defeat. Marsh Chapel’s own Max Miller gave us our accompaniment, as well, our marching beat, in music both of challenge and of hope, a hymnic cadence mindful of harm and aware of hope. May Johnsons’ words and Miller’s music, their Jeremiah 32, their Luke 16, guide us forward.

Behold a broken world, we pray, where want and war increase,

And grant us Lord, in this  our day,

The ancient dream of peace.

God of our weary years

God of our silent tears

Thou who hast brought us thus far along the way

Thou who hast by thy might

Led us into the light

Keep us forever in the path we pray

Lest our feet stray from the places our God where we met thee

Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world we forget thee

Shadowed beneath thy hand

May we forever stand

True to our God

True to our native land

Bring Lord your better world to birth, your kingdom love’s domain

Where peace with God

And peace on earth

And peace eternal reign.

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

& Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

An Invitation

September 18th, 2016 by Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 14:15-24

Click here to listen to the sermon only

An invitation.

Who: you!

What: this sermon

When: right now until…question mark?? (or approximately 20 minutes)

Where: 735 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, wbur 90.9 fm, wbur.org, our podcast

Why: well, to hear the Word of God in a new way with insightful commentary and explanation, or so I hope

RSVP: By staying in the pew, not changing the radio station, or not skipping over the sermon while listening to the podcast later

Invitations are all around us. I was invited to this pulpit today by our Dean Hill, asked to reflect on the word in light of our international student population here at BU. Thank you, Dean Hill for your invitation! In turn, I invited others – three of our participants in the service are international students here at BU – Eleanor Yan, who read the passage from Romans in Mandarin and English, Moises Rodriguez who read the gospel in Spanish and English, and soon after this sermon ends, Sanghee Lim, who will lead our Prayers of the People in Korean and English. I am thankful for their acceptance of my invitation as well as the help of the Rev. Soren Hessler in the extension of those invitations. Thanks to each of your for your help and participation today And then of course there is the invitation that we extend each and every week to all of you who are here or listening from far away. We invite you to be a part of our worshipping community, to hear the Word of God, to engage in prayer, to meditate on the musical offerings, to occasionally partake in the Eucharist, and most importantly, to worship God.

My role here at Marsh Chapel is to serve as the University Chaplain for International Students. Generally, when people find that out they ask what my job entails. What is a chaplain for international students? What do you do? I provide support for our international student population through pastoral care. I create opportunities for engagement, fellowship, and learning among our international and domestic student populations. I help plan worship opportunities like today and work with our interfaith and various faith student groups on campus. But mostly, I have the honor and pleasure of learning about and experiencing the various cultures and traditions present on this campus, and creating spaces for students to learn, explore, and be in community with one another. In short, my job rocks.

At the beginning of a school year, I would say that about 80% of a university chaplain or campus minister’s time is spent around the idea of invitation. Issuing invitations to students to come worship and events, being invited to beginning of the year receptions and gatherings, not to mention the running the actual events and gathering themselves. Here at Marsh Chapel we’ve hosted plenty of events and fellowship opportunities in the last week, meeting new students and welcoming back returning students. Joining them in fellowship over food, in discussion about faith, and giving space for clarity and mindfulness. Presenting them with open opportunities to interact through art, and opportunities to worship together. Our whole ministry staff team has put in hours of dedicated service to the community, often times by simply being present for a specific amount of time in a specific place. We have invited folks over the internet, over the radio, and via flyers and listings on the BU Calendar.

But perhaps one of our most effective ways of invitation was simply just being visible to others and enthusiastically welcoming them to join in our activity. You heard a bit about this last week, when the dean recounted our “greening of the dorms” activity out on the BU Beach. During this event, we stood out on the green lawn behind Marsh Chapel with small pots, paints, brushes, dirt, and seeds, inviting students to personalize their pottery and to take home planted seeds that will hopefully grow into delicious basil. What Dean Hill didn’t tell you was some of our invitation techniques. These included shouting “Hi! Do you want to paint a pot?” Or “Do you want some basil to take home?” or, and I think this may have been Br. Larry’s favorite tactic, wildly gesticulating at passers-by that they should join us by making large waving motions. The tactic worked, and most people, once they figured out what we were doing were enthusiastic about participating and conversing with us and other who had gathered around.

Not every interaction needs to be so lively, however. For example, Soren Hessler and Jen Quigley’s weekly offering of Common Ground communion on Thursday afternoons. And by every Thursday, I mean, EVERY Thursday, regardless of the temperature or meteorological conditions outside. They extend their invitation to passers-by rather simply, through a sign that reads: Common Ground Communion, Thursdays 12:20pm, Marsh Plaza, ALL ARE WELCOME. Having substituted for them once and also from hearing first hand accounts from both Soren and Jen, mostly you get a lot of stares, but usually there are a few who stop to take and eat. Through their simple sign they attract people, and have even created a small community of “regulars.”

As an expression of hospitality, invitation is the way we let others know that they are welcome into our space to share in a moment with us, whether significant or not. Invitation takes on many forms. The formal invitation, printed on cardstock, delivered through the mail. The evite – an electronic invitation sent via email. The Facebook event invite, which basically is what it sounds like. The informal invitation – which can be done in person, over the phone, or via text message. All of these forms of invitation require that the host extend the invitation, although not all require the same level of response.

There are rules about invitations. Who gets invited, when we invite them, how we expect to find out who is coming. For more formal affairs, invitations are exclusionary – only close friends or family, or important people are invited to such an event. These events generally require that the attendees are notified far in advance and that they send their response in enough time for the host to prepare for them. On the other end of the spectrum, we have the public event, those opportunities which are open to any person who happens to be in the area, and which may or may not require a response from the attendees. These events might occur at a moment’s notice and bring together a disparate group of people for one purpose, for example a protest or a flash mob.

While formal events still occur, for which people follow the rules of etiquette regarding invitations such as weddings and galas, our society has tended toward looser definitions of invitations and RSVP’s with the advent of social media and texting. When was the last time you received an invitation on paper to something? I’m willing to bet for many of you it was to a wedding, which has remained steady in the execution of formally extending and invitation (although even now, that may not always be the case).  Technology makes it easy for us to be wishy-washy on our responses – it gives us to say “maybe” rather than yes or no to an event, or to choose to say that we are interested in an event without committing to going. And believe me, there is nothing more frustrating than seeing 7 “goings” and 40 “interesteds” on a Facebook invitation. What does that mean? How much food should I make. It brings to mind a campus ministry colleague’s posting earlier this semester: “Hmmm. Should I order 3 pizzas or 12 pizzas for tonight’s event? You just never know, do you?” Or about the first meeting of Global Dinner Club this semester, where we had about twice as many attendees as I was expecting, necessitating a last-minute run to the grocery store to pick up extra supplies. Ministry involves opening the door for community, but much of the time you’re never quite sure who will show up.

Today’s gospel revolves around an invitation and the accompanying customs of the time. The parable Jesus tells is in the midst of attending a banquet, a carry-over from the beginning of chapter 14 in Luke. Perhaps this is why this particular parable is left out of our lectionary offerings – it is too similar to the opening of chapter 14. This parable, like the one at the beginning of the chapter, also focuses on banquet etiquette, but does so in framing the story around a specific event rather than proclaiming general etiquette rules about where you should sit at a banquet and why. More specifically, the emphasis in the parable is on the responses the host receives from those whom he had invited first. Luke goes into detail explaining each of their excuses, framing them as the focus for this ethical tale. The first invitees, like the host, presumably have money and are at the same social level. They also presumably initially responded yes to the host’s invitation when he issued it. But, upon being prepared to receive the guests, the host is confronted with a barrage of lame excuses from them. The first two respondents are too concerned with their material possessions that they cannot attend. The first needing to survey the land that he just bought, and the second needing to try out the oxen he just purchased. It’s similar to having invited a friend to a dinner party, having them agree that they will be there weeks ahead of time, and then texting you two hours before to say “I just picked up my new iPhone 7, and I really need to test it out. Sorry!” The third response really gives no reason why, just “I just got married, I can’t come.”

Maybe you’ve been in the position of hosting a party or an event only to have a significant portion of people make excuses for why they can’t come at the last minute. Perhaps you understand why the host in this story becomes angered because of this. Or alternatively, we’ve all been in the position of making an excuse at the last minute to get out of going to an affair we’ve known about for a while. In justifying our behavior, we may assume that everyone else will follow through with their “yeses”, so us not showing up will not have any impact on anyone else. But if everyone cancels at the last minute, then the host is left without guests, and the event fails. The men who fail to show up at the appointed time in the story may feel that they have no need of what is being offered at the banquet (food and community), and therefore remain unaffected and somewhat unrepentant in their excuses.

What the host does next teaches us about the radical hospitality of God. Instead of trying to find more friends who might be able to attend, the host instead instructs his servant to invite the lowest of the low to the banquet; the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. Does he do this out of spite for his friends that turned him down? Perhaps. But the host’s actions may also be out of recognizing who really needs and would benefit from such a banquet. Those who are hungry or left out from the rest of society would not turn down an invitation such as this. Or even if these new invitees have second thoughts about attending, the host tells his servant to compel them to come, to fill his house with people. And, in turn, to exclude those who initially turned away his invitation.

We could understand this story eschatologically, signifying the great banquet in the Kingdom of God and who or who will not be invited. It suggests that God’s invitation to the “great banquet” is available to all, but individuals must agree to accept it. In Lutheran or Methodist terms, that the grace of God is extended to all, but that we should not be distracted by other obligations or material gains in recognizing it. And this is an important reading of the gospel for all Christians, but we also need to recognize how this parable teaches an ethical lesson in addition to the theological points it brings forth.

But I think another way to look at this story is to see the situation as an example in present reality which is meant to teach the people Jesus is dining with and the audience Luke is writing for about proper Christian hospitality toward others. We are included in that audience. Christian hospitality requires both the host and those invited to be open to one another. Extending this form of hospitality is mutually beneficial for both the guest and the host. It calls on us to form community through our invitation, rather than to only acquire material goods. Even if material goods (i.e. the food) may be needed by those who do attend, the feeling of being connected to others and being considered a part of the community becomes what is ultimately important. In some ways, the Eucharist serves a similar function for us. It is the time when we all come together to share in a meal regardless of background or status and it anticipates the great banquet that will occur in the Kingdom of Heaven.

God’s invitation and the Christian notion of hospitality asks us to take on a radical form of egalitarianism, placing all on the same level. In welcoming the stranger, as Paul instructs in his letter to the church in Rome, and welcoming those from all walks of life, as the Gospel presents through Jesus’ parable, Christian hosts dismantle the levels of power which may otherwise exist. By extending an invitation to the stranger, we come to know the stranger as a person and care for them as a part of our community. We learn from the stranger and become fuller human beings. At the same time we are invited by God and by Jesus to rest and seek peace in them. To live as a Christian is to be both host to others as well as guest in the presence of God.

What we do here at Marsh Chapel is try to model this form of hospitality. Our stated mission is to be “a heart for the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city.” Our context in an area of the United States with the highest number of people self-described as “nones” … that’s n-o-n-e-s, not n-u-n-s…those having no religious beliefs, according to the Pew Research Center. We are also in the middle of a University setting where young people begin to question the traditions they learned at home and become more skeptical. We exist in a complex matrix of belief systems, enriched by multiple perspectives from around the globe. And despite these challenges, we send out an open invitation to all.

We, as a community of faith, are happy to meet people where they are. We attempt to embody this openness in a place that can sometimes feel resistant and cold to hospitality. To the lost and the lonely, we offer a place to be oneself and to find others. We model Christ’s teachings. We learn from our sisters and brothers from other faith traditions. We welcome all whether believer, questioner, or none. We form community, give grounding, a sense of place, and facilitate growth, personally, spiritually, emotionally, vocationally, and communally. . We invite our students to claim Boston as a home away from home where they can grow and learn from people and perspectives from a many places around the world. We accept the invitations of others to learn and develop in our understanding of the world as well as expand our relationships within the BU community, in the city of Boston, regionally, nationally, and globally

We do all these things, not for our own sake, but because of the higher cause that we serve. For as Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated in his writings while he was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp: “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…not dominating but helping and serving. It must tell [people] of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.”

How will we as a community issue an invitation to the world today? Will we accept an invitation from others? From God? Will we be committed to the yes that we give, or instead be “maybes” or “interesteds” who prioritize other pursuits at the last minute? The decision is ours to make. An ever-present invitation waits for us. How will we respond?

Amen.

–Ms. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

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

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.