Sunday
March 15

The Faith of Saint Teresa of Avila

By Marsh Chapel

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John 4: 5-42

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One

Our worries today include immediate personal experience of hurt, say in betrayal; they include financial anxieties of the week; they include the shades of untruth now shadowing portions of society, culture, and, especially political leadership;  they include viral infection and protection for the elderly and the impaired; but we do remember also, amid all these global matters, the globe itself in which the worries abide.

It may help, this morning, in earshot of the Gospel, to listen for voices of faith, today women’s voices of faith.

With me, over time, you for instance have found the voice of Mary Pipher one such:  from Reviving Ophelia to Women Rowing North, and much in between across decades.  Last week she offered a reminder of the wonder in snow—think what we have missed in snow, for good and ill this winter.  Come Sunday, it may be a quiet way to reset our sense of faith, in listening to her hope of heaven:

All of my life I have loved snow.

When I was a girl in the 1950s, snow fell often in the long winters of western Nebraska. I remember one winter when, after the streets were plowed, mountains of snow 10 feet tall stood in the middle of the streets. As a young mother, my favorite days were snow days when our family could stay home and play board games. I would make soup and popcorn. I relished taking my children outside to do the things that I had done in the snow as a girl. I loved falling asleep with my family safe on a blizzardy night when the streets were impassable and a blanket of peace covered our town.

Now, snow has become a profoundly spiritual experience. When it snows, I sit by my window and watch it fall. I go deep into its purity and softness.

Snow falls inside and outside of me. It settles my brain and calms my body.

I hope death feels like watching the snow grow thicker and thicker. Doctors call dying of a morphine overdose being “snowed.” I would not mind that at all. I would like to disappear in a whiteout.  Mary Pipher, NYT, 3/5/20

Two

Perhaps the quintessential woman’s voice of faith in the New Testament is found in our Gospel today, John 4.  We have our troubles, for sure.  Here she is, ready to help us.

One lone woman at one old well is here to help us.

In a region well versed in religious difference and dispute, our Lord is pictured in John 4 cutting through religion. For Samaritan simply substitute ‘other’, religious other. If Nicodemus reminds us that we are free, and he does, the Samaritan woman reminds us that we are responsible, and we are. Freedom gives birth to responsibility. Jesus leaves the familiarity of Judah. He crosses, on this memory, multiple lines. He crosses the geographical line. He crosses the gender line. He crosses the racial line. He crosses the status line. He crosses the religious line. Our woman spells it out. You, a Jew: I, a Samaritan.

Jesus Christ is the Lord of life, not the Lord of religion. He calls us from religion to faith, out of false consciousness into a whole new way of being.

Spirit and truth, spirit and truth.

Our lone woman knows her Samaritan religion: Samaria, Jacob, ancestor, marriage (she knows marriage better than Elizabeth Taylor), holy mountain, Messiah. She is not a Jew and she is not a Christian, but you can substitute for her religious vocabulary any number of similarly developed religious tongues. She knows religion. Jesus offers her faith. Jesus offers her the religion of unreligion. The Lord offers us the religion of unreligion.

The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel is not easily blended with his counterparts in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Rather than projecting our own needs for uniformity out onto these ancient, holy, mysterious, puzzling and powerful writings, we first will want to listen to them. Listen. We need to let the Bible speak to us. Now, the Jesus of John 4 is a very different Jesus. He sees into others’ minds. He knows things without being told. He divines the secrets hidden in the heart. He stands alone and in public view with a woman, a Samaritan woman, a troubled Samaritan woman. This Jesus is guided along in a lengthy mystagogical conversation, full of riddles, double entendres, hidden meanings, mysterious silences. He offers living water. In none of this does one find a single correspondence with the earlier three quests for Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John’s is an entirely different Jesus. So, asked one bright student, which is true?

Excellent question.

And here is an answer. They all are. They all truly represent the actual historical experience of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, which various little communities in his fledging church did have of him. All four are historically accurate. With accuracy they describe the Jesus known in the actual lives of the communities of Mark, forty years after Calvary; Matthew, fifty years after Calvary; Luke, fifty-five years after Calvary; and John sixty years after Calvary. They give us grace and freedom to sense Jesus, as they did, present among us, as He was among them. He is risen. He is not here. See the place where they laid him.

Three

A third woman’s voice of faith, a close cousin to that of both Mary Pipher and that of the Samaritan woman, is the voice of our Lenten conversation partner, 2020, St. Teresa of Avila.  In the preparation for these sermons, one fine resource, on which we rely in these weeks, is that of Rowan Williams, when he still had time to write of such things: Rowan Williams, Teresa of Avila, (London:  Continuum, 1991):

Says Rowan Williams

Teresa of Avila is one of the most accessible and attractive of all the great writers in the Christian mystical tradition; but her very human attractiveness and the fascination of her unusual experiences of vision and rapture tend to obscure two salient facts about her.  First, she was a woman reacting to a particularly difficult epoch in the history of the Spanish state and church; and second, she was an independent theological thinker. (ix)

Muses Rowan Williams:

23  Hence the importance of friendship:  simply to elevate virtue over honour can lead to a strongly individualistic ethic, marked by just as much paralyzing anxiety as the honour system.  Joining a religious community is a commitment to equality, and so to reciprocal pastoral care (nurture and criticism):  this is set out most fully in the first fifteen chapters of THE WAY OF PERFECTION.  It is thus also to expose oneself to the ordinary misunderstandings of common life; and to be able to live with these, not seeking constantly to defend and justify oneself, is the path to the highest virtue…it is incompatible with the religious life to want always to be right.

95 “(The soul) understands that it is required to preoccupy itself  with God, that it needs to focus on Him so it can escape all sorts of danger.  On the other hand, it finds it mustn’t overlook a single point of worldly etiquette, because that might provide occasions of sin to people who think their honor hinges on these niceties”.

Opines Rowan Williams:

101. Teresa is in the uncomfortable position of having to advise men who presumably know a lot more than she does.   The only way she can to it is to convince them of her weakness and their strength.  “His yoke is sweet, and it is important not to drag the soul, as they say, but to bring it along gently, so that it will make better progress.

  1. “It used to please me enormously to think of my soul as a garden, and imagine that the Lord was walking in it. I begged him to increase the fragrance of those little flowers of virtue that were, it seemed, just starting to bloom…I didn’t want anything for myself, and invited Him to cut whichever blossoms he wanted, because I already knew that the plants would be better for pruning”.

115. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) had called for a thorough reform of all the religious orders, and the man charged with whipping the Carmelites into shape was Prior General Giovanni Battista Rossi, known to Spaniards as Rubeo.

Four

The voice of faith in the life of Teresa of Avila brings back to us the centrality of prayer, the necessity of contemplation.  After her death, several of her works were published, the primary ones being two historical texts, Life of the Mother Teresa of Jesus (1611),  Book of the Foundations (1610), and four spiritual ones, The Way of Perfection ((1583), The Interior Castle (1588), Spiritual Relations, Exclamations of the Soul to God (1588), and Conceptions on the Love of God (1588).  She left behind 31 poems and 458 letters.  The mystical, spiritual works are essays in contemplation, in depiction of the contemplative life as an approach to God.  You can hear in her titles, even, the emphases in the works:  way, wholeness, relationships, ecstasy, love….God.

Our current cultural condition, driven by a mercantile capitalism largely unfettered by other potent restraints, including religious restraints, makes little space for, makes little time for contemplation.  Yes, we have calls to wellness and stillness.  Yes, there are apps for brief daily meditations.  Yes, we dimly recognize that there probably is more to life than what is measured in contract, income, consumption, and schedule.  But for the regular woman or man, for you, for me, lengthy contemplation and the rigorous preparations for it, are present largely by their absence.  So, the sixteenth century Spanish mystics, with their poetic disciplines, are foreign, to the main, for us.  And so they have something wonderful, mysterious and deep to offer us.

A few of us spent the year together, as college juniors, in Segovia, Spain, not far from Avila, now more than forty years ago.  Francisco Franco was still in power, the Guardia Civil kept order except when surprised by Basque militants, the corrida de toros far exceeded futbol in popularity, the country was quietly preparing to emerge from fascismo, the waiters had seen and served Ernest Hemingway even if they had not read his book about their town—Por Quien Doblan Las Campanas, people still read the poets—from Calderon to Machado and back, and the evening paseo was the heart of the day for all, large and small, short and tall, rich and poor and all.  Y mientras otros…let me lie in the shade of a tree, singing.  The year abroad can be the best part of college, as it was for us, long ago.  There was, that is, a lived experience that was not allergic to contemplation.

A fourth, nearby woman’s voice of faith can be found right here, in the work of Marsh Chapel.  As Dr. Jessica Chicka has written, in the daily Marsh Lenten Devotions: Jesus reminds us that our physical need for water will always be a constant – we will become thirsty again. That thirst must continue to be quenched by access to clean water, a concern for the Samaritan woman, who must make long treks to the well to secure the water she needs for her daily living. She even mocks Jesus a bit, citing that he has no bucket to even fetch his own water. But she is able to assist him, because he asks for her help. In exchange Jesus offers her the Living Waters of the Spirit, seeing past her outsider status as a Samaritan woman but instead as a person deserving the good news found in the grace of God. She, then, in turn, shares this Living Water with her community, evangelizing the work of Jesus. Each is assisted by the other in sharing water both literal and metaphysical, enabling them to live.

I wonder, with these four voices in our ears, whether we might find the discipline, take the time, to wander a bit in the wilds of contemplation, the forests primeval of prayer?  This might just be the Lent in which to do so.

First, amid the changes, challenges and uncertainties of our current moment, please be mindful that I and our staff team here have you in prayer, and have a daily, watchful interest in noting ways to be of ongoing service and support.  We are with you, we are for you, and we carry a daily pastoral embrace of you:  you can easily find our contact information on the Marsh website (*link to Marsh website chaplains page). The verse from Philippians comes to mind, ‘in all things in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving lift your needs to God’ (Phil 4:6).  In that same spirit, I might suggest that you, day by day, lift one particular person, from our community, or from your own personal community, in quiet prayer.  Our Lenten sermon series, relying on St. Theresa of Avila, as it happens, is centered on prayer.  We will have an added dimension in our prayer lives, just now, given the challenges of the day and hour.  We are praying for you.

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

Sunday
March 8

The Life of Santa Teresa of Avila

By Marsh Chapel

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John 3:1-17

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Introduction

Hear the Gospel: The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes.  So it is with every one who is born of the spirit.

Our Lenten Sermon Series, beginning today, will engage in conversation with St. Teresa of Avila.  From 2007-2016, Lent by Lent, we identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition.  In this decade, we turn to the Catholic tradition.   With Calvin we encountered the chief resource for others we engaged over ten years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), Paul of Tarsus (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin, (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).  In this decade, beginning with Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, turns left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, and others, one per year.  Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?  For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list.  We began with Henri Nouwen in 2017, and continued with Thomas Merton in 2018, turning last year 2019 to St. John of the Cross.  Now, Lent 2020, we listen in prayer for grace in the life, voice, heart, poetry and spirit of Santa Teresa of Avila.

Thomas Merton sets the beat and the course of travel, year by year: “(Lent) is for people who know what it means for their soul to be logged with these icy waters: all of us are such people, if only we can realize it.  There is confidence everywhere in (Lent), yet that does not mean unmixed and untroubled security.  The confidence of the Christian is always a confidence despite darkness and risk, in the presence of peril, with every evidence of possible disaster…  Once again, Lent is not just a time for squaring conscious accounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before.  The light of Lent is given us to help us with this realization.  Nevertheless, the liturgy of (Lent) is not focused on the sinfulness of the penitent but on the mercy of God.  The question of sinfulness is raised precisely because this is a day of mercy…

John

Scripture and tradition depend on reason and experience.  Spirit involves reason and experience.  A question for you, day by day as mortality approaches, is whether you can find the courage to trust your own experience and whether you can find the capacity to rely on your own reason.  Opportunities to subcontract both are amply available.  But in order to live a life that is yours not almost yours, Spirit is needed.

John had the courage to face the awful disappointment behind the New Testament:  Jesus did not return, not on schedule, not as expected, not soon and very soon, not maranatha, not yet.  But John looked at his own experience, and in biblical measure, with traditional tools, reasoned.   In place of apocalypse, he celebrated the artistry of the everyday, and in place of the speculation about the end, he celebrated the Spirit of truth, and in place of parousia, the coming of the Lord, he nominated Paraclete, the presence of the Lord.  He sang: You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.   One way to solve problems is to face them, to name them, to admit them.  No parousia.  Paraclete. Spirit!

The stark strangeness, the utter difference of John from the rest of the Bible we have yet fully to admit.  My beloved advisor, perhaps the greatest John scholar of our era, Fr. Raymond Brown, got only as far as saying that John is best understood as ‘an embraceable variant’, emphasis on embraceable less emphasis on variant.  But when we get to John 3, we see chiseled there in ice and covered fully with wind and snow, an enigmatic, mysterious riddle:  Spirit, sweet Spirit, Paraclete.  The endless enemy of conformity.  The lasting foe of the nearly lived life.  The champion of the quixotic.  The standard bearer of liberty.  The one true spirit of spirited truth.  Yet we cannot even give the history of the term, nor fully define its meaning, nor aptly place it in context, nor finally determine its translation.  Paraclete eludes us.  Paraclete evades us.  Paraclete outpaces us.  Paraclete escapes us.

Notice that in John, starting with Nicodemus, the Spirit is given to all, not just to a few or to the twelve, definitely not.  Notice that it is Spirit not structure on which John relies.  Notice it is Spirit not memory which we shall trust (good news for those whose memory may slip a little).  Notice that Spirit stands over against what John calls ‘world’ –another dark mystery in meaning.  Notice that the community around John’s Jesus is amply conveyed a powerful trust in Spirit.

Other parts of the New Testament take another trail.  The Book of Acts offers confidence by way of hagiographical memories of Peter and Paul, and of false but loving assertions of the utter agreement of Peter and Paul.  Trust your memory and when you cannot create a new memory.  The Pastoral Epistles—and to some degree 1 John in opposition to his gospel namesake—rely not on memory or memories and not on Spirit, but on structure:  presbyters, faith once delivered to saints, deacons, codes of conduct, stylized memories of orderly transmission of tradition.   We need memory.  We need structure.  Neither can hold a candle though to Spirit.  That is, for John, what Moses, the Law, the historical Jesus, the Sacraments or anything else cannot ever fully offer, Paraclete SPIRIT provides.  By Spirit we hear the word God.  God reveals by Spirit.  God self-reveals by Spirit.  Here the stakes are very high.

Again, Raymond Brown:  This is the ultimate self-revelation of how the word of God gets translated as God.  To a community living in time and space, the Spirit of Jesus is proving the world wrong.  People who live by the spirit is the only way others will be convinced of the victory of Jesus (Hill, Courageous, 82).

The world does not lack for wonders but only for a sense of wonder (Chesterton).  Your life does not lack for mystery but only for a sense of mystery.  Your week does not lack for worth but only for an hour of worship.  “I love the silent church, before there is any speaking” (Emerson).  Pause just a moment in prayer.

When you come to worship you place yourself in prayerful sight of beauty.  When you come to worship you stand and sit in the company of real courage, heroines and heroes of old.  When you come to worship you at last find a way—language, imagery, symbol, all—to express an ultimate concern for ultimate reality. When you come to worship you see the whole horizon, the whole ocean, from birth through love to death…and beyond.  When you come to worship you place all the rest of your life in the loving embrace of Love, capital L.  When you come to worship you are reminded that you are a child of God, no matter what else or other your boss, co-workers, neighbors, family, friends or roommates have said or intimated.  When you come to worship you enter the space of Grace.  People have such ragged reasons for skipping worship.  Make it your plan, as you walk along, to find a church family to love and church home to enjoy and a church service to attend at least one hour a week.  In prayer, at least now, at least here, at least here and now.

Yet sometimes worship goes wrong.  When it does, for you, say so, to whomever.  If it does so regularly or spectacularly, go elsewhere, pronto.  Life is short.  We need make no excuses for prizing our time.

St Teresa

Speaking of time, Saint Teresa of Avila was born March 28, 1515 and died at age 67 on October 4, 1582.   She was one of the greatest women in Christian history, and one of the greatest mystics and teachers in the Roman Catholic tradition.  It may be that her most lasting influence came with her call to Juan de Yepes, our Saint John of the Cross, to join her in the work of renewal within the Carmelite order.  She worked with the women; he with the men.  You will remember him from last year’s Lenten sermon series.  We hope!  That is, we listen today, especially and appropriately, to an international woman’s voice, and devote this month of March to her, her voice, even as we embedded our preaching and worship in the last month or so to hues, tones and voices like those of James Weldon Johnson, and of Elijah’s Sweet Chariot, and of Abraham Lincoln, and of remarkable organ postludes for the season, and most powerfully of Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Teresa’s mother died in 1529.  Although her father opposed it, Teresa joined the Carmelite Convent in Avila, a lovely Castilian town in 1535.  She promptly fell ill, nearly dying, but recovered slowly.  On recovery she gave up daily prayer for the next 15 years.  Then she went through a religious awakening in 1555.  The nature of this awakening is not fully understood, but stands at the heart of her future life and work.  We shall want this Lent to think about awakening, or awakenings, about prayer as awakening, and particularly about that which impelled the mature ministry of Santa Teresa de Avila.

Her reform called on the Carmelites to return to their origins in austerity, simplicity, poverty and prayer.  Especially prayer…Their vocation, she repeated, was one of ‘reparation’ for the sins of the world.  They refused all regular support and refused endowment, depending only on daily and weekly alms, to emphasize the centrality of poverty in the life and work of the order.  Over the rest of her life she established 16 convents throughout Spain.

In 1575 a major dispute emerged in Seville, which again you may remember from last Lent, and the work of St.  John of the Cross.  We hope!  The argument pitted the Discalced (‘unhsod’) against the Calced (‘shod’), the no shoes versus the shoes.  As so often in life, she could foresee the emerging conflict; she could militate against it; she could work to avoid it; but she could not stop it. (repeat).  Don’t we know about that… In the aftermath of this religious conflict—and conflict is not foreign to any religion—she was ordered home to Castile in the north, and told to stop founding convents.  St.  John of the Cross too was disciplined, imprisoned, you may recall, in Toledo.

It took the king’s intervention to set St. Teresa back on the road.  King Philip II of Spain, who knew her, and held her in high esteem, solved the conflict by giving independence to the Unshod, the Discalced, the no shoe crew, with Teresa its head.  In 1580 she took up the work again, traveling hundreds of miles.  On the way from Avila to Burgos, she fell ill and died.

After her death, several of her works were published, the primary ones being two historical texts, The Life of  Mother Teresa of Jesus (1611), The Book of the Foundations (1610), and four spiritual ones, The Way of Perfection ((1583), The Interior Castle (1588), Spiritual Relations, Exclamations of the Soul to God (1588), and Conceptions on the Love of God (1588).  She left behind 31 poems and 458 letters.  The mystical, spiritual works are essays in contemplation, in prayer, in depiction of the contemplative life as an approach to God.  You can hear in her titles, even, the emphases in the works:  way, wholeness, relationships, ecstasy, love….God.

Application: Conversation

The incarnational mysticism of St. Teresa is, among so many other glorious things, just utterly…Spanish.

We sat on Las Ramblas a couple of summers ago. Barcelona Blue…I had forgotten…How blue the skyHow gentle the seaHow sweet the breezeHow happy the peopleHow young the cityHow luxurious the conversationHow smooth the coffeeHow clean the sandHow fine the trainsHow old the culture…

Barcelona looks today so very much smaller to me than it did in 1974.  The view from a hotel’s 26th floor, and the view from 40 plus years later, and the view from the other side of so many hurts, deaths, illnesses, betrayals, defeats, sins and worries, made it so, smaller, much smaller than 40 years ago.  And Jan saw La Sagrada Familia, for the first time, and said ‘what a mess, but what a beautiful mess’. (J)

Sitting on Las Ramblas, watching, literally, the whole world walk on by:  rich and poor, women in burqas by the dozens, a girl with colorful clothing, skinny 80 year old men who drink tankards of beer in minutes, couples of every stream and color and type, Germans known by their excellent English and Americans known by their mediocre English, people with selfie sticks, 20 year-olds holding hands, jovial African kids, an occasional Texan with cowboy boots and hat, Asians wearing cowboy hats, short and long haired Hispanic women, mothers and daughters, holding hands, white men in black with black women in white,  the steroid children’s strollers of a new age, gay men and women—the world at pause, together, in conversation, call it common prayer.  Call it conversational, Las Ramblas prayer.

The Spanish…talk.  They give the art, beauty, craft and joyful surprise of conversation the time it needs, the refreshments it needs, the spaces it needs, the vocabulary it needs, the cigar smoke it needs, the spirit it needs, the respect it needs.  This is why one loves Spain so much.  Walk and talk.  Walk as long as you can.  Talk as long as you can. August in Barcelona is to be alive.  The glory of God is a person in Barcelona in August.  Like Boston, Barcelona is a pedestrian city.  No houses, apartments.  No cars, trains.  No poor, taxes.  And conversation, conversation, conversation…

We are in conversation about prayer this Lent, alongside our conversation partner, St. Teresa of Avila.  Someone you know far better, from our own time, Mother Teresa, took her name and gave us the prayer with which we end, today:

              People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.  Forgive them anyway.

            If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.  Be kind anyway.

            If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.  Succeed anyway.

           If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.  Be honest and sincere anyway.

            What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.  Create anyway.

            If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.  Be happy anyway.

            The good you do today, will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.

         Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.

         In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and God.

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

Sunday
March 1

Healing in Sacrament

By Marsh Chapel

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Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Romans 5:12-19

Matthew 4:1-11

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A text copy of the sermon is unavailable.

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

Sunday
February 23

The Transfiguration

By Marsh Chapel

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Exodus 24:12-18

2 Peter 1:16-21

Matthew 17:1-9

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The text of this sermon is currently unavailable but will be posted soon. We appreciate your patience.

-Mr. William Edward Cordts

Sunday
February 16

The Language of the Beloved Community

By Marsh Chapel

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Deuteronomy 30:15-20

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Matthew 5:21-26

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Hear today the good news of the language of the beloved community, Matthew 5: 21-26, in exegesis, explanation, and application.

First, Exegesis

Matthew is a teacher.  His own gospel is a didactic one.  He is teaching about the Person of Christ, and the Proclamation of Christ (as here in chapter 5) and then the Passion of Christ. Matthew is organized around at least five narratives and lectures.  Including a long lecture from a mountain.  Affirming the jot and tittle of the law.  Honoring disciples and discipline.  Matthew sees the world and its human inhabitants, as a school room filled with students.  He is a teacher, we are his students, and he wants us to learn.

In our passage today, Matthew’s verses ‘forbid not only the overt crime, but the disposition behind it’ (IB, op. cit.).  Killing is a result of anger.  Insult is a result of anger.  Denigration is a result of anger.  It is the soul, what is down deep, the heart, what is at the core and center of being, that is truly at stake, day by day, our Gospel teaches us.  Be careful.  Be careful.  Be very careful that you do not take the pose of what you oppose, that you do not conform to what you criticize, that you do not come to resemble what you resist.  It is almost inevitable, to some degree.  The person you resist, you come to resemble.  The organization you resist, you come to resemble.  The point of view you resist, you come to resemble.  When you wrestle with an angel you may take on an angelic blessing.  But when you grapple with a demon, you may become demonically mis-shapen.

Memorize the Beatitudes for they are the spiritual charter of the kingdom.  Remember that Matthew has two interests, the good news of Jesus and the church of Jesus, and neither is ever very far out of his field of vision.  These verses, Matthew 5 and following, carry to us, without much need for interpretation, ‘warnings against an overinvolvement in worldly goods.’  Teresa of Avila will also teach us so, and more so, come Lent.  After all, these crucial teachings are given directly to the disciples themselves, and only indirectly to others, near and far, early and late.

Now you are well aware, Marsh Chapel, you blessed and astute hermeneuts, that at least three options are available to you as you think about how to think about how to think about the teachings of Jesus recorded in Matthew’s—Matthew’s—Sermon on the Mount.   First, you may take these sentences straight, and expect that the Gospel expects us to live them out, fully, through and through. You Methodist perfectionist you! Second, you make take these sentences on the curve, and expect that they, being largely impossible to fulfill, are meant to remind us of our abject need for grace.  You Lutheran Protestant you!  Third, you may take these sentences as ‘interim ethic’, meant in full only for those who were expecting to see the end of time in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, and now superannuated by later Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience.  You Catholic historian you!  With some meager attention to the first two, as you know, I think the third is most true.  Already, a few verses after our passage, in the teaching on divorce, which in Mark and Luke is a pure prohibition—No–we have the opening of qualifications, even in the interim.  There are more reasons for divorce than unchastity, for sure.  Abuse, for starters.  Divorce is never a good thing but it is sometimes the best thing.  Or, as Krister Stendahl said of some such passages, ‘I believe it is the Word of God, but not the Word of God FOR ME’.

So, exegesis.

Second, Explanation

Some time ago, we hosted a June wedding, here in Marsh Chapel.  The bride, from San Antonio Texas, and the groom, from San Diego, had met here at Boston University, just months before graduation.  Each needed just a couple of extra credits to graduate in May.  So, independently, not yet ever having met, they scoured the course offerings, and, creatively, both settled on a course in ice skating.  Neither had every laced up skates, ice being harder to find in San Diego and San Antonio, than, say, Boston.  They appeared at the rink, found their skates, laced them, and hobbled onto the rink.  And there, quickly, they fell into each others arms.  Literally.

After the gracious, reverent wedding, one of her relatives, a stocky, barrel chested Texan, confronted the minister, asking:  What is he doing in here?  I mean him.  You know.  Our 16th President, Mr. Lincoln.  Why is he in here?  Well, this involved some ancient history of Daniel Marsh, and his choices of two windows to go along with the inherited others along the nave, one for Francis Willard, a prohibitionist—a gay, feminist, suffragette, protector of women and children—and the other for Lincoln, who freed the slaves and preserved the union.  Our Texas cousin, as it turned out, a really kind and gracious soul, was not dyspeptic to greet Honest Abe, here, just curious.

The separation of church and state has never meant anything like the separation of a Christian from her politics.  The opposite.  Francis Willard and Abraham Lincoln are with us every Sunday, listening to the choir, enduring the sermon, observing the congregation, right here, to remind us so.  That is, Willard and Lincoln bar the door, here, from those who would enter, or stay, on the supposition that one can practice faith apart from the gnawing claims of justice.  It is true:  justice is a part of the gospel, not the heart of the gospel.  The heart is love, agape.  But is also true that real religion is never very far from justice.  For those who might wish for one or the other—well, Lincoln and Willard might want a word with you. No. Religion, Christianity, Protestantism, Methodism, Marsh Chapel, all affirm a rooted synergy of deep personal faith and active social engagement.  Worship, its order and beauty and rhythm and depth and all, concluding with the majestic organ postlude, can and should nourish us, bathe us, and steady us—but can never protect us from our daily round:  we will head out again tomorrow to see what we can resurrect from the rubble of the republic Ben Franklin gave us, ‘if you can keep it’, said he.

Here in Matthew, it is not just action that gets you into trouble.  It is attitude as well.  It is anger, when expressed to a faithful sibling—that brings judgment.  It is insult, when poured onto a sister or brother—that brings arraignment.  It is derogatory rhetoric, when inflicted on one’s fellow—that brings hell fire.  You go from accuser to judge to guard to prison, accuser to judge to guard to prison.  The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s most creative contribution to our Holy Bible, will go on to attack adultery, and lust, and divorce, and perjury, and swearing—adultery, lust, divorce, perjury and swearing—this is not a Presidential Curriculum Vitae, it is just Matthew being Matthew—but before any of that comes, quietly, a gospel word about language, about the beloved community and its language, and about the roots of anger and insult and derogation.

Why?  Because, according to the Scriptures, we are meant to live in Beloved Community.  Because, according to the Wesleys, we are meant to live in Beloved Community.  Because, according to Thurman and King, we are meant to live in Beloved Community.  Because, according to what we most truly want today in our heart of hearts, we are meant to live in Beloved Community.  Because—you were in church last Sunday, right?—the Sermon on the Mount is written out as addressed to YOU PLURAL.  These are words for community, in community, to community, by community, addressed to an addressable community.  They are the language of the beloved community.  We should take an open space here at BU, and devote it to the beloved community, our heritage:  Yes, in our time; Yes, with Thurman and King; Yes, with the founding and leadership of BU;  Yes, with the preaching and singing Wesley brothers;  Yes, across the long expanse of history and religion; Yes, in the Holy Scripture, including Matthew, but most deeply within the Gospel of John.  Maybe we could put this in the room where the Howard Thurman Center once was?

Andrew Bacevich, in his newest book, The Age of Illusions, starts with compunction.  We suffer from too much hubris and too little hope.  Our hubris as a people.  And our lack as a people of a common hope.  Too much pride to little prospect.  As Benjamin Friedman wrote some years ago, in The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, times of plenty, like 2020 we might add, are meant not for hubris but for hope, they are times when the resources are around to take the world and make it young again.

So, explanation.

Third, Application

Now of a certain age, some of us can look back on three impeachment moments, in a lifetime.   All of them were accompanied by voices out of Matthew 5, sermon on the mount voices, voices trained in the language of the beloved community.

In 1974, some of us listened to a former Attorney General of the United States, who spoke, at Gray Chapel Ohio Wesleyan University, for more than an hour without notes.  Both his daughter and his son, fine people by the way, were students at that small college at the time, and were sitting proudly in the front row.  Richard Nixon was in the throes of impending impeachment. It was a bitter time. His former Attorney General, a loyal and staunch conservative, was speaking to us.  His theme is as crystalline today as it was almost fifty years ago:  This is a country of law and not of men. For 70 minutes, with real feeling and keen mind, he traced that theme into our memories.  This is a country of law, not of men.  After the Watergate burglary, he had been asked to pass over the regular rules of policing, to protect his president.  He did not.  An Arizona native, a Harvard law graduate, an Attorney General, a proud Republican, he would not forsake principle.  As a consequence, in part, his party’s President fell to the fear of impeachment.  This is Richard Kleindienst, who was later convicted, not regarding Watergate, but regarding an ITT business deal, but whose sentence and fine were annulled, accepting for himself his theme that evening:  a country of laws and not of individuals only.  Nixon retaliated by removing him on the same day as he did Ehrlichman and Haldeman.  There is a living tradition, on the right, in this country, a deep and true and thin tradition, of speaking justly against injustice.  We on the left should honor that in memory.  (By the way, about 5 years ago I was trying remember our graduation speaker two years later, Ohio Wesleyan 1976, about which moment I had exactly no memory:  seniors among us, be prepared for May.  Bring a notebook.  So I explored on the interweb and found out that our speaker was a lawyer whose name was–Robert Bork.  My, my.)

In 1998, some of us had called publicly for Mr. Clinton to resign from office, facing impeachment, on the basis of decency, and morality and honor.  He did not.  (Think by the way of what would have been different had he done so:  Gore running as an incumbent.  No 2000 defeat by 600 votes from dangling chads in Broward County.  No Vice President Cheney.  No vehement war mongering after 9/11.  No alchemistic concoction of imaginary weapons of mass destruction.  No George Bush.  No shadow for Hillary to run under.  But no.  It was a bitter time.  That Labor Day, if memory serves, a centrist Orthodox Jew, and US Senator, came home from a family weekend, and prepared a speech which he delivered the next day in the Senate, demanding accountability from his own party’s President. After much reflection, my feelings of disappointment and anger have not dissipated, except now these feelings have gone beyond my personal dismay to a larger, graver sense of loss for our country, a reckoning of the damage that the president’s conduct has done to the proud legacy of his presidency and, ultimately, an accounting of the impact of his actions on our democracy and its moral foundations. The implications for our country are so serious that I feel a responsibility to my constituents in Connecticut, as well as to my conscience, to voice my concerns forthrightly and publicly. And I can think of no more appropriate place to do that than on this great Senate floor.

It was a courageous, thankless, painful and much needed correction.  So many had passed by the long-term consequences of that earlier Presidential misuse of office, with, in retrospect, baleful reasons.  But Joe Lieberman spoke, and wrote, not in anger or in insult or in diatribe, but with earnest, sincere, care.  His righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees.

Now again in 2020, those within the party in power have been put before the long mirror of the Sermon on the Mount, to see how they would reflect, and be reflected in history.  It is a bitter time.  Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to perdition and many there be who go therein.  But narrow is the gate, and straight is the way, that leads to life, and few there be who find it.  That narrowness has everything to do with God, with Scripture, with Faith, with Conscience, and with Courage.  In real time.  What an Episcopalian did in 1974, and what an Orthodox Jew did in 1998, a Mormon did in 2020.  Maybe they all, out of their inherited religious traditions, drew on the memory of being outsiders, of being poor, of being powerless.  There is Kleindienst, I can see him sweating and speaking and his kids both proud and crying, 1974.  There is Lieberman, I can feel the terse intensity of his prose, virtually alone among his fellow Democrats, willing to call abuse, abuse, in 1998.  And now comes a former governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, standing alone in the well of the Senate, emotional, dog tired, red eyed, and firm.  Knowing there will be costs and consequences.  Saying things about conscience. Saying things about faith. Saying things about God. “Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented, and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience.” There is still a lot of good in this country, for all the losses of these years.  For those of us who are liberal, we owe it to ourselves, and to the honest truth, to record and recall that conservatives of character remain.  I have seen it with my own now dimming eyes.  I have heard it with my own now failing ears.  I have kept it in my own now flagging memory.  Kleindienst, Lieberman, Romney.  An Episcopalian.  An Orthodox Jew.  A Mormon. Hm.  Quite a trio.  Three who knew the grammar, syntax and spelling—the language–fit for the Beloved Community. Three who knew the grammar, syntax and spelling—the language–fit for the Beloved Community.

So, application.

Coda

A Beloved Community, devoted to healing climate change

A Beloved Community, devoted to nuclear peace

A Beloved Community, devoted to the language of grace

A Beloved Community, devoted to equality

A Beloved Community, where those with much have not too much, and those with little have not too little

A Beloved Community, devoted to learning, virtue and piety

A Beloved Community, honoring women, protecting children, embracing the elderly

A Beloved Community not of this world only, 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

To get there, we will need the voice and faith of James Weldon Johnson:  God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who hast blest us thus far along the way.  Thou who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path we pray.  Lest our feet stray from the places O 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.

Sursum Corda!  Lift up your hearts!

Hear the Gospel of the Language of the Beloved Community!

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

Sunday
February 9

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

1 Corinthians 2:1-12

Matthew 5:13-20

Click here to hear just the sermon

Reverend Hill

 

In the reading and hearing of the day’s Scripture we are given a word

of encouragement and a look to the future.

We can appreciate both the word and the look, surrounded as we are

every day with the unexpected consequences of sin, the unexpected news of

illness and death, and the unexpected threats that come from feelings of loss and

meaninglessness.

 

Together we are followers of Jesus. We may follow from a long way

off, but we are his people and the sheep of his pasture. Together we work to

develop disciples, in the heart of the city and in the service of the city. And being

a disciple is a matter of the heart. Coming to Jesus may not be a matter of a

moment or a day. It may not be caused by lightening or earthquake. It may not

be from a command that is as plain as the nose on your face. But it is always a

matter of the heart.

 

Now St Matthew has imagined for his church and for the church of all

time a great scene. Followed by many, both disciples and future disciples, Jesus

ascends a mountain. Like John Brown ensconced in the Adirondacks, like Moses

up on Mt. Nebo, like the Jewish heroes at Masada, Jesus takes to the high peak,

and as is the custom, he sits to teach. His words are as fresh and pure this

morning as they have been for nearly 2000 years.

 

He offers us a word of encouragement and a look to the future.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.

 

The most striking feature of this utterance is that it is spoken to and

for a community. The you is plural—you all. Or as it is said of the plural of you all

in the south—all you all. This is a word for the church, the body of Christ. For

you—for all you all. You can be salt—but not on your own. You can be light—but

not by yourself. You can be a disciple of Christ—but not free-lance. There are no

free-lance Christians. Jesus encourages the community of disciples. And his

images that follow are common: a city, a house, all people. That which banishes

the darkness of fear and loneliness is light. That which redeems the rotten

blandness of selfishness is salt. Light and salt are found in community. The most

striking feature of this teaching is that it is spoken to and for–a community.

The second most striking feature of this utterance is its breadth and

depth. You—all you all—are salt and light of—what? Your mind? One family? A

school or church or two? No. You are the salt of the EARTH and the light of the

WORLD. Let your light shine before ALL HUMANS! A community that is salt and

light is deep and wide. Our church is at the heart of Boston and heard around the

world. After all, this is a mountain top word. It is meant for the whole

community. This is a word of encouragement and a look to the future, for a

church at the heart of the community. When we plan and dream at Marsh we try

to think world-wide and a half century deep.

 

One of the winds beneath our wings comes from our music ministry.

Yes, at Christmas and Easter, on Communion Sundays, for special University

services like Matriculation and Baccalaureate and Martin Luther King Sunday, but

also, and notably so for us, on our twice a term Bach Sundays. The word and

music of these days keep us moving forward together, salt and light.

 

Dr. Jarrett, what should we listen for in our cantata this Lord’s day?

 

Dr. Jarrett

 

Well, just as you’ve predicted for us Dean hill, today’s cantata as with our

scripture lessons offers a word of encouragement and a look to the future. As we

have in past surveys, we are studying and performing the works Bach wrote for a

specific occasion – liturgical or temporal. This year surveys four cantatas Bach

wrote for New Year’s Day. Cantata 16 – Herr Gott, dich loben wir, follows a now

familiar path in both libretto and design. Bach’s librettist features from the outset

an excerpt of the famous Te Deum hymn, known to have been sung at the start of

the new year. In the opening movement, you’ll hear four lines from the Te Deum

set like a chorale tune in long notes in the soprano part. The lower three parts

have a much more active part that proceeds without instrumental breaks or

interludes. All the vocal parts are doubled by a member of the orchestra, except

the first violins have an entirely independent part adding a fifth voice to the

otherwise four part texture.

 

The opening of the cantatas is of interest to me: it’s as if Bach begins in the third

or fourth measure of the piece In material we would characterize as episodic. It’s

as if a melody has already been played and we enter immediately into motivic

development. Or, were it not for the episodic material, we might expect this to be

a delicate aria accompanied by continue only.

Similarly the opening movement comes to a close somewhat suddenly without

closing ritornello and on a half-cadence –a sense of a grand pause. A secco

recitative ensues sung by the Bass, drawing us from the ancient hymn, sung

throughout the centuries, to the present moment with none other than a word of

encouragement and a look to the future: “What have you not done, O god, since

time began for our Salvation? And how much does thy breast still perceive of thy

love and faith? And should we not sing in fervent love? Therefore, a new song

sing out!”

 

The old modal hymn that ambled along in the first movement, erupts into a joyful

chorus in C major with full chorus in full acclamation: “God’s goodness and faith is

renewed each morning.” A word of encouragement, a look to the future.

With the conclusion of this extended, tri-partite opening, we take inward turn.

The alto steps forward to offer a prayer for God’s blessing in the new year, as he

enjoins us to place our trust and faith in Christ Jesus. This is the first mention of

Jesus in the cantata, and it parallels and invites the inward turn toward soul-

searching and personal reflection. In such proximity to Jesus’s name day and

presentation in the temple, the theological image of Jesus living in the hearts of

all believers is close at hand: “Beloved Jesus, thou alone shall be my Soul’s wealth.

We shall, therefore, before other riches enthrone Thee in our faithful Heart.”

Though this shift inward toward Jesus might seem late in the canata – the next to

last movement – at seven minutes, this rumination balances the opening

movements taken together. The aria itself is score for tenor, continuo, and either

violetta or oboe da caccia. Though the music is written in 3-4 time, Bach confuses

the meter and placement of the downbeat often enough, that the longer line. The

Cantata concludes with a four part chorale setting Bach had used two days before

to conclude Cantata 28.

 

So how do we account for this? Here we skate toward the thinner ice of

speculation and conjecture,

 

Reverend Hill

 

But worship alone, even when shot through with glorious music as

today, is not enough, alone, for salt and light. For love there need to be places

to love one another. Every Sunday morning here we host ten or so smaller

groups. Here is a morning study group. Here is a circle of student interns. Here is

the Marsh choir. Here is the Thurman choir. Here is Take Note—take note! Here

is the intercessory prayer assembly, quiet before worship. Here is a children’s

room. Here is a luncheon or coffee following worship. Here is a Bible Study

following worship. Here is a mission group, Abolitionist Chapel. Here is a group

heading out to visit shut-ins and nursing home. For salt not to lose its savor, and

for light not to grow dim, there need to be places and spaces for nourishment.

This takes commitment. It takes investment. You cannot have that

kind of fellowship or friendship in a six-week seminar. It takes a lifetime of prayer

and study and searching the Scriptures.

 

Now I know we have many of our own questions about the Bible, and

they are good ones. Did David write the Psalms? Was Jesus born in December?

Does Paul condemn slavery in Philemon? And so on. Good for us. But today

somewhat beside the point. Growth in Christ comes not from our questions about

the Bible, but from the Bible’s questions about us.

 

*Have you reckoned with the shortness of life? Psalm 90

*Have you lead a life worthy of God? Ephesians 4

*Have you earnestly sought the higher gifts? 1 Cor 12

*Have you reckoned with the real force of evil and

the strength of the final enemy? 1 Cor 15

*Do you tithe? Do you share your faith? Mal 2

*How does your generation’s character compare to others? Matt 28

 

In antiquity it was Diognetus who loved the passage about salt and

light. Around 130 ad he wrote of the people of salt and light. He is speaking of

you, you all, all you all:

 

They display to us their wonderful and paradoxical way of life.

They dwell in their own countries, but merely as sojourners.

Every foreign land is to them their native country.

And yet their land of birth is a land of strangers.

They marry and beget children, but they do not destroy their

offspring.

They have a common table, but not a common bed.

They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh.

They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven

When reviled, they bless.

When insulted, they show honor.

When punished, they rejoice.

What the soul is to the body, they are to the world.

What salt is to earth and light is to world are you to this county, this

region. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.

 

Sursum corda! Lift up your hearts!

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

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

Sunday
February 2

Two Turtledoves

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Malachi 3:1-4

Hebrews 2:14-18

Luke 2:22-40

Click here to hear just the sermon

Prelude:  Pauline 13

February 2, 2020.  Candlemas.  Ground Hog Day.  A religious feast.  A secular holiday.  The consolation of Israel.  The redemption of Jerusalem.  For once, we turn our meditation, at communion, both outward and inward, both toward the shadow’s length on to spring, and to the liturgy’s turn from Christmas, and the blessing of the candles of 2020. Sometimes it is not the great mysteries, but the small ones—a candle, a shadow—that touch us and heal us.  The little things.  Like two turtle doves, a candle on Candlemas, a shadow on Ground Hog Day.  Light a candle.  Watch the shadow.

One: Candlemas

‘525,600 minutes’…Midway into the old musical, RENT, the story a young woman appears at the door of her neighbor.  Both are poor, lost, penniless and lonely.  Like all of us, we long to connect with others, with our own truest selves, and with God.  She knocks on the door, looking for a match with which to light her candle, for just a little warmth, just a little light. Unamuno on warmth: not the night that kills but the frost.   And she sings, “Will somebody light my candle?” “Will somebody light my candle?” There is struggle in the air, and romance too.  And what is wrong with that?  Here is a young man wondering about profession, marriage, meaning.  “Will somebody light my candle?”  Here is young mother, raising children alone.  “Will somebody light my candle?”  Here is a man, or woman, alone now for the first time, this winter.  “Will somebody light my candle?”  Here is a grandfather listening for news of his grandson in military service, far away.  “Will somebody light my candle?”  Here is a preacher wondering how on earth to preach the gospel with Australia burning, China coughing, Washington exploding, Methodism imploding, “Will somebody light my candle?”  Here you are, on the brink of faith, just about ready to accept your own acceptance, to connect with your own connectedness, to survive your own survival, to live in the peace of God.  “Will Somebody light your candle?”  Our friend Dr. Reid Cooper of Brown said last Sunday, ‘faith is the positive response to the question, ‘does life have meaning?’’  True enough, at least to start.

Watch our Sacristan, Come Sunday, just before the service, while some have gathered for quiet intercessory prayer, quietly lighting our candles, here on the altar.

The Scripture for Candlemas illumines us:

*The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple

*Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested

*Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the King of Glory may come in

*Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him; to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Jesus is our childhood’s pattern.  Day by day like us he grew.

Simeon and Anna are older people, who have some insight, even prophetic insight, into what is to come.  Luke has apparently confused the rites of presentation and purification.   Consolation; the fulfillment of Jewish messianic hopes.  The consolation is the redemption of Israel, different phrases meaning the same thing. A light for revelation to the unreligious, and for glory to the religious.  The old prophet sees, as promised, and Messiah has come “for all peoples”.

The feast of the Presentation, or Candlemas, is the conclusion of Christmas, and affords the blessing of candles, and the blessing of throats. One of the oldest feasts of the church, dating to the early fourth century, it conjured sermons by Methodius of Patara (died 312), Cyril of Jerusalem (died 360), Gregory the Theologian (died 389), Amphilochius of Iconium (died 394), Gregory of Nyssa (died 400), and John Chrysostom (died 407).  So the church’s liturgy joins with Scripture in teaching and testimony:

*Dear people of God, forty days ago we celebrated the joyful feast of the incarnation of Jesus. Today we recall the day on which he was presented in the temple, fulfilling the law of Moses. Led by the Spirit, Simeon and Anna came to the temple, recognized the child as the Christ, and proclaimed him with joy. United by the same Spirit, we now enter the house of God, where we shall recognize Christ in the breaking of bread.

*O eternal God, who have created all things; on this day you fulfilled the petitions of the just Simeon: we humbly ask you to bless and sanctify these candles for our use. Graciously hear our prayers and be merciful to us, whom you have redeemed by your Son, who is the light of the world, and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

*O God most powerful and most kind…for Whose sake the glorious Martyr and Bishop, St. Blaise, joyfully gained the palm of martyrdom…Thou Who didst give to him, amongst other gifts, the prerogative of curing by Thy power every ailment of men’s throats…

At our prayer station following communion, we can at least recognize the need for health particularly at this time around the globe.

Come Candlemas, light a candle.  It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.  This is not Confucius, Shakespeare, Proverbs or Ben Franklin.  It is a line from a sermon, 1907.

“The earliest appearance located by QI occurred in a 1907 collection titled “The Supreme Conquest and Other Sermons Preached in America” by William L. Watkinson. A sermon titled “The Invincible Strategy” downplayed the value of verbal attacks on undesirable behaviors and championed the importance of performing good works. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:  ‘But denunciatory rhetoric is so much easier and cheaper than good works, and proves a popular temptation. Yet is it far better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.’” (Internet: QI)

Light a candle.

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

Two: Ground Hog Day

I have this response to those of you who will not abate the ongoing contention related to my claim that Ground Hog Day is the best of all holidays:

In the ministry you offer to God and neighbor all weekends, most evenings and most holidays, and then work 9-5, Monday to Friday.  All this takes a chunk out of the year.  Holidays, in particular, carry, shall we say, some stress.  Christmas, for an example.  There are expectations.  Special services.  People.  Doings.

Behold the blessing of February 2!  An utterly ordinary day, and a holiday to boot!  No expectations.  No special services.  No people.  No Doings.  Just the blessing of a single, average, wintry, bereft of expectation day.  Ground Hog Day.  It doesn’t get better than Ground Hog Day.  A quiet, ordinary, no frills day.

But…What is ordinary about any day, anyway?

Every one of them is a gem.

Monday’s child is fair of face

Tuesday’s child is full of grace

Wednesday’s child is full of woe

Thursday’s child has far to go

Friday’s child is loving and giving

Saturday’s child works hard for a living

But the child that is born on the Sabbath Day

Is happy, witty, bright and gay!

Every day is a chance to do a good turn.  Do one daily.  BE: Trustworthy Loyal Helpful Friendly Courteous Kind Obedient Cheerful Thrifty Brave Clean Reverent.

We have reminders, don’t we, of ordinary daily wisdom, quotidian quips

Some are cultural:

A stitch in time saves nine…An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure…Look before you leap…eternity in a grain of sand, heaven in a wild flower

Some are familial:

(To complaining): You would complain if you were to be hung with a new rope…(To time waste): Never try to teach a pig to sing.  It wastes your time.  And it annoys the pig…(Too constant questions):Are you a journalist or are you writing a book?…(To inquisitive children): Where were you before you were born?  Down in Canada boiling soap.

Some are national:

Give me your tired, your poor  Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free  The wretched refuse of your teeming shore  Send these, the tempest tossed, to me  I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

In truth, there are no ordinary days, no insignificant holidays.

Emily Webb stands as our fiercest sentinel to the landscape of this, truth, the Gospel on Ground Hog Day, out of the imagination of Thornton Wilder, brother to the great New Testament scholar, Amos Wilder, both New Englanders.

You will remember that she and George were graduated from High School in Grover’s Corners.  On the basis of a frank talking to over a soda, in which Emily criticizes George for being less than fully humble, George decides not to leave home, not to go to college, but to start working an uncle’s farm right away, and to marry Emily, the girl next door.  You remember their wedding. “A man looks pretty small at a wedding, all those good women standing shoulder to shoulder, making sure the knot is tied in a mighty public way.”   You remember that Emily, after just a few years of profoundly happy marriage and life, tragically dies in childbirth.  You remember that George finds no way to manage the extreme grief of his loss.  Simple Yankee English.  Simple reckoning about love, life, death and meaning.

Maybe you also remember, in the playwright’s imagination, Emily from the communion of saints looking out on her young husband and wanting to go back. Others warn her away from the plan: “All I can say Emily, is, don’t…it isn’t wise…(If you must do it) Choose an unimportant day.  Choose the least important day of your life.  It will be important enough.”

She chooses February 11, 1899, her 12th birthday.  She arrives at dawn.  She sees Main Street, the drugstore, the livery stable, and breathes the brightness of a crisp winter morning.  Simple.  She looks into her own house.  Her mother is making breakfast, her father returning from a speech given at Hamilton College.  Neighbors pass in the snow.  Simple.  She sees how young and pretty her mother looks—can’t quite believe it.  It is 10 below zero.  There is fussing to find a blue hair ribbon: “it’s on the dresser—if it were a snake it would bite you”.  Simple.  Papa enters to give a hug and a kiss and a birthday gift.  And others from mother and the boy next door. Simple.  “Just for a moment now we’re all together.  Mama, just for a moment now we’re all together.  Just for a moment we’re happy.  Let’s look at one another.”

Simple.  This is the gospel of Ground Hog Day, the best holiday of the year, the holiday of the extraordinary ordinary, of the uncommonly common, of the sunlit winter, of the eternal now.  Simple.  Grover’s Corners.  “Papa. Mama.  Clocks ticking.  Sunflowers.  Food. Coffee.  New ironed dresses.  Hot baths.  Sleeping.  Waking up. Earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”

Watch the shadow.

In truth, there are no ordinary days, no insignificant holidays.

Said BU Philosopher Erazim Kohak:  “A life wholly absorbed in need and its satisfaction, be it on the level of conspicuous consumption or of marginal survival, falls short of realizing the innermost human possibility of cherishing beauty, knowing truth, doing the good, worshiping the holy”.

Postlude:  Beatitudes

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

Sunday
January 26

Vocation

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Isaiah 9:1-4

Matthew 4:12-23

Click here to hear just the sermon

         Today we see Jesus walking the shore of his beloved Sea of Galilee.  He sets out at dawn, as the fishermen begin, casting and mending.  This stylized memory from the mind of Matthew kindles our own memory and hope, too.

 

That first light of the day, daybreak, carries a power unlike any other hour’s hue.  The excitement of beginning.  The promise of another start.  The crisp, cold opening of the year in January.  Like the skier, mits and poles at the ready, we adjust our goggles, and we lean, and…

 

Here is Jesus, midway from Christmas to Easter, from manger to cross, from nativity to passion.  Along the shoreline he strides, one foot in sea and one on shore.

 

He meets two brothers at first light, and they meet him, God’s First Light, the light that shines in the darkness.  Notice how Simon, called Peter, and Andrew, his brother, are sketched.  There is little to nothing of history here, but what there is says so much!  There is no parental shadow lying on their fishing nets.  One hears no maternal imperative, no paternal dictate.  These boys are on their own.  They have left home already, maybe leaving the city to the south to find a meager middle-class existence farther north, with their own means of production.  They are small business men, boat owners, fishermen.  Neither the amhaaretz nor the gentry, they.  Not poor, not rich.  Working folks.  Young, young men.  Simon already has a nick-name.  A sign of joviality, of conviviality, of gregarious playful fun.  Peter, the Rock.  Is this for his steady faithfulness or his failure to float?  On this rock…Sinks like a Rock…You sense that these brothers play in the surf a little, kick up the sand a little, flirt with the Palestinianas, take time to take life as it comes.  Brown are their forearms, and burnished their brows.  They love the lake and life, and have made already their entrance into adult life.  For they have left home.  One envies their youth and freedom.  They have taken to the little inland sea, and with joy they meet each dawn, like this one, at first light, as they see Light.

 

You can feel the sand under their feet as they take a moment to play and laugh.  You can feel the chill of the water as they swim, while breakfast cooks over the fire.  You can feel their feeling of vitality and joy as they greet another day at first light.

 

I wonder whether we allow ourselves to drift a little too far from that sense of vocation, that first light feeling.  Those nearly pure dawn moments of almost rapturous illumination.  Those moments of connection.

 

The day your BU acceptance letter came.

 

The afternoon of BU Commencement, four fast years later, 25,000 in attendance.

 

The evening you came out to your parents.

 

Your first child, tiny, red, crinkled, fists waving, crying and then asleep, literally in your hand.

 

Your daughter, or son, taking the vows of confirmed faith, in the church’s chancel.  Yes, there was some part child and another part adult in what was said.  But they were there, in tie and dress.  They were there, in public and in church.  They murmured, and they murmured piously.  And how did that feel Dad?

 

Your day of matrimony.  Down the aisle they come, or you come, father and daughter.  Do you? Do you?  I do. They do.  And what was once a simpler world, now has further complexity and creative power.  A new creation.

 

Your retirement party.

 

There must have been some moment, sometime, when you felt an intimacy with the universe, a closeness, a sense of purpose.  That too is a kind of daybreak, dawn, first light.  That is an inkling of vocation.

 

A simple trust, like theirs who heard beside the Syrian sea.

           

          Our denomination once had a thriving ministry in China.  When we forced out of China in the 1940’s, something vital left our church.  But you can still feel the first light of mission in the halls and rooms at Scarritt in Nashville.  Oriental ornaments, paintings, sculpture, gifts, symbols of connection and love.  We grew up with the family of Tracy Jones, who himself had been raised as missionary child in China.  As had Huston Smith. Our first parsonage, in Ithaca, had once housed Pearl Buck while she and her husband were back on furlough, from China.  Have we begun with the Spirit to end with the flesh?  Have we forgotten the love we had at first?  Have we stayed close enough to that dawn light, and those first light experiences, to stay fresh?  Have we an inkling of vocation?

 

           

Our malaise, our ennui, should we have such, our “acedia”—spiritual sloth or indifference, literally, our “not-caring”—so often is due to our turning away from the dawn, daybreak, that elemental experience of love that energizes everything else.

 

Peter and Andrew, of course, are casting, casting nets.  They have no furrowed brows, no endless worries, no pessimism, no angst.  They probably have left unattended some holes in their nets, these two happy brothers.  They are willing to accept that their casting will be imperfect, as all evangelism is imperfect.  But that imperfection will not keep them from enjoying the labor of casting.  To miss the dawn, the first light, is to miss the fun of faith!

 

Invite that neighbor, the one across the street whose porch light

is always on, to come along to worship with you.  Do you enjoy, benefit from, appreciate worship here, come Sunday?  Then, of course, you will want to share that enjoyment, benefit and appreciation, by inviting someone to come too.  Here at dawn…those first stirrings, first longings, first intimations of something new and good….

 

Meanwhile, back on the beach, Jesus heads south, cove by cove, with Andrew and Peter frolicking in tow.  They had already left home.  They are ready to take a flier on some new trek, not fully sure how it will work out.  It is a miracle that they are remembered, perhaps with a little hagiography, as having responded “immediately”.  Still, every little scrap of memory of these two brothers tends in the same direction—full of vim, vigor, vitality and pepperino.  Yes, they will follow!

 

But down the shoreline a little, there rests another boat.  A different story, a different set of brothers altogether.  James and John.  Known as the sons of Zebedee.  Simon has already earned his own name and nick-name.  But these two are known by their father’s name.  They haven’t left home.  They have not yet acquired that second identity.  When you won’t leave, won’t move, you won’t find, you won’t grow:  you’ll miss vocation. Here they are, as usual at dawn, stuck in the back of the boat.  All these years they have watched the Peter and Andrew show.  All these years they have envied the fun and frolic down the beach.  The late night parties.  The bonfires.  The singing.  The swimming.  And here they sit strapped to the old boat of old Zebedee.  They are covered with the ancient equivalents of chap stick and Coppertone.  And they are trapped.  Under the glaring gaze of Zebedee, whose thunderous voice has so filled their home that their own voices have not even emerged.  Every day, in the back of the boat.  And what are they doing?  Why you could have guessed it, even if the text had not made it plain.  Are they casting?  No.  Are they fishing?  No.  Are they sailing?  No.  They are mending.  Mending.  Knit one, pearl two… Their dad has got them into that conservation, protection, preservation mode.  Mending.  At dawn!  Of course nets need mending, but the nets and the mending are meant in a greater service!  The fun is in the fishing!  The joy is in the casting.  The happiness is in the evangelism.  And there they sit, sober Calvinist souls, mending.  Deedle deedle dumpling, my son John…

 

Today we are mid-way between Christmas and Easter.  This passage has a little passion (the Baptist) and a little nativity (Nazareth). The two stories of Jesus, of his birth and of his death, are meant to complement and interpret each other.  As our colleague Milton Jordan put it this week:  Matthew attempts to soften this story of Jesus’ flight from the threat of arrest. He and other disciples of the Baptizer flee from Herod Antipas’ region to a border town where escape to another country is not as difficult.  We have, too often overlooked – if not intentionally obscured – the harsh political realities of Jesus’ flight to the border.

 

Here is a pronouncement of a broad peace, on earth.  On earth.  With Gandhi along the Ganges.  Beside Tutu on the southern cape.  Along the path of the Dalai Lama in farthest Tibet.  In Tegucigalpa with our missionary friends Mark and Lynn Baker. This is no predestinarian quietism, which has taken over parts of non-Catholic American Christianity, from its seedbeds in the Orthodox Presbyterian and Anabaptist communions:  cold, careful, efficient, first mile, changeless, fearsome, depressed grace.  No, this is Christmas:  warm, open, effective, second mile, free, growing, angry, and hopeful!  Augustine:  Hope has two beautiful daughters:  anger and courage.

 

The early church told two stories about Jesus.  The first about his death.  The second about his life.  The first, about the cross, is the oldest and most fundamental.  The second, about the manger, is the key to the meaning of the first, the eyeglasses which open full sight, the code to decipher the first.  Without Christmas you can’t see Easter right.  Jesus died on a cross for our sin according to the Scripture.  That is the first story.  But who was Jesus?  What life did his death complete?  How does his word heal our hurt?  And how does all this accord with Scripture? One leads to the other.

 

This second, second level story begins at Christmas, and continues in Epiphany, and is told among us to interpret the first.  Christmas\Epiphany is meant to make sure that the divine love is not left only to the cross, or only to heaven.  Epiphany is meant to open out a whole range of Jesus, as brother, teacher, healer, young man, all.  Christmas is meant to provide the mid-course correction that might be needed if all we had was Holy Week.  And the Christmas\Epiphany images are the worker bees in this theological hive.  Easter may announce the power of peace, but Christmas names the place of peace.  Jesus died the way he did because he lived the way he did.  Jesus lived the way he did, and so died the way he did.  That is, it is not only the Passion of Christ, but the Peace of Christ, too, which Christians like you affirm.  What lovely news for us at the start of a new decade.  The passion too of Christ.  Theologically, globally, politically, militarily, ecclesiastically —we have seen passion this year.  Now comes dawn, the light, Epiphany, Christmas\Epiphany again to announce that there is more to Jesus than the passion.  There is the matter of peace as well.

 

The real miracles of this account lie in the second invitation to the second set of brothers.  It is a miracle that Jesus stopped and invited them, so somber are they.  I wonder if he took in the timbre of Zebedee’s voice, and saw them quaking in the back of the boat.  Perhaps his heart went out to James and John.  So, he stops, and he asks.

 

That is the great thing about an invitation.  All you can do is ask.  Do ask.  Ye have not because ye ask not.  And for the first time in their lives, James and John are invited to live. Too many people live half asleep.  Too often we don’t live life, life lives us.  Like these two knitting in the back of the boat.  Half asleep.  Then dawn comes, and day breaks, and that first light shines!  And a voice like no other, so equanimous and so serene, casts its spell upon them.  Maybe upon you, this morning.  Watch.  It is a first light moment.  First one, then the other, stands and moves.  Under the shadow of that paternal presence, under the sound of that maternal imperative of home.  They rise.  And they move toward First Light.  They are about to grow up.  AND THEY LEAVE HOME! Wonderful!  And what do they leave behind?  You would have known even if the Scripture had not laid it right out.  They leave behind the boat…and their father.  We best honor the adults in our lives when we become adults ourselves. (repeat)

 

Will this world grow up? Will we find a way to live together, all seven point five billion of us, and to drink from the same cup? This text, strangely like John, claims for Jesus that Jesus is light.  Not color, now.  Light.  Color is great, and good.  But we all want finally to be able to drink from the same water fountain, we want our children in one school, we want to sit at one table, we want to drink from one goblet.  It is light that we will need into the 21st century.  We finally all drink from the same cup.

 

I am told of a man who stopped in his new neighborhood to buy lemonade from a freckle faced 7 year old girl and a mahogany skinned 6 year old boy.  He paid his dime and drank his beverage and stayed to talk.  After a while the girl asked if there was anything else he wanted.  No, he said, why?

 

Well sir, we are running a business here, and we have had a busy morning, and we hope for a busy afternoon, but that cup you are holding is the only one we have, so if you don’t mind, we’d like it back.

 

We all finally drink from the same cup. We forget it at our worldly peril.  If we walk in the light as He is in the light we have fellowship with one another.  We have more in common, as climate change, nuclear danger, governmental malfunction, denominational turmoil, and personal angst remind us, all around the globe, than we do in difference. Give us light.  Give us light.  Dear God, give us light.

 

Have you faith?  You are going to need some this coming year, 2020.

 

At first light, at dawn, we may with happiness remember this.  The protagonist of M Robinson’s Gilead, an old pastor in the Iowa town of this name, spends Sunday mornings, at dawn, praying alone in his church.  He loves the morning hour.  He waits with baited breath for the church to begin to fill up, to fill in.  He basks in the first light of day.

 

He knows, you do too, that we are going to need some faith this year.  Others will, too.  How will they find faith in Christ without a church family to love them, without a church home to nurture them:  without you taking a moment to say, ‘I will be at Marsh Chapel on Sunday at 11am—why not meet me there?’

 

That is the dawn, Peter and Andrew, real joy of faith:  sharing it.  Would you like to have some fun this week?  Look around for dawn breaking, and kick up some sand.

 

Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

Sunday
January 19

A Natural Grace

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Isaiah 49:17

1 Corinthians 1:19

John 1:2942

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‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove’

Scripture

O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me!
Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up;
    thou discernest my thoughts from afar.
Thou searchest out my path and my lying down,
    and art acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.
Thou dost beset me behind and before,
    and layest thy hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is high, I cannot attain it.

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
    Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there thy hand shall lead me,
    and thy right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Let only darkness cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to thee,
    the night is bright as the day;
    for darkness is as light with thee.

Spirit in Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience.

In this, the 139th Psalm, a very favorite of Dean Howard Thurman’s, you hear two, or perhaps the two, central features of his teaching on Spirit, nature and grace.  And they come together so smoothly, so seamlessly, that you might just speak of them together, as a natural grace.  Today as we welcome our beloved and esteemed guests, today as we recognize and honor Martin Luther King Jr., today as we step even further to recognize the shaping mentorship and influence on King of Thurman, and today as we recognize and celebrate the inaugural of Boston University’s fine new Howard Thurman Center, we might just do so with…Spirit.

Scripture dazzles us, if we are alive to it.  Notice here that Jesus needs no introduction to Peter:  he knows his name already, without being told, like he knows yours.   Notice here the closeness of the Gospel writer to the Baptists—not American or Southern or Old Regular Baptists–but those who were disciples of John the Baptist, but came over to follow Jesus.  Was the Gospel writer a Baptist before he became a Christian? Notice what does not happen.  In every other Gospel, Jesus is baptized by John, but not here.  Notice the dog that does not bark.  No.  Jesus steps away, dry as a bone.  Spirit ever trumps sacrament, and gospel ever trumps church in John.  Jesus is not baptized in John (the Gospel) by John (the Baptist), unlike in the other three gospels.  The Baptist knows and honors Him—bears witness to him (martyr in Greek) but Jesus does not stoop, deign, or allow himself to be baptized.  Here is inheritance, but inheritance with innovation at its heart.  Here is religion, but religion with grace, a natural grace, at its heart.

Spirit in Scripture.

Tradition

So too, Spirit in Tradition.

And we have our traditions here, one of which is the observance of this special Sunday, in this particular space, with its particular Marsh history, across six deanships.  With Franklin Littell, the first Marsh dean, 1951, and one of the founders of Holocaust studies in the USA, we share an uncompromising willingness to challenge national government and leadership, for the sake of the gospel.  With Howard Thurman, 1953, our most famous dean, we share a confidence in universal truth, a search for common ground, and a delight in natural grace.  With Robert Hamill, 1965, we share a fierce commitment to human, to civil rights.  With Robert Thornburg, 1978, we share a nuanced appreciation for the intricacies and wanderings of Methodist church bureaucracy.  With Robert Neville, and his emphasis on Go the Creator.  With Robert Hill, the current dean, we share a regard for biblical theology, Paul Tillich, common hope, and hymn singing in four-part harmony.   All together, our tradition is one of a common hope. We have seen hope come alive, moving from chapel to university to community:  Community Service Program, LGBTQ L Douglass, ISGC, Howard Thurman Center, Global Ministry, and others.

A tradition in hope buoyed by many voices.

The voice of John Wesley.  Methodists are like everyone else, only more so, the saying goes—a wide and diffuse denomination, committed to a handshake and a song, and that shared ‘creed’ of ‘that which has been believed, always, everywhere, and by everyone (so, John Wesley).

The voice of Mahatmas Ghandi, walking and singing ‘Lead Kindly Light’, embodied this common hope.  Ghandi wrote:  “I am part and parcel of the whole, and cannot find God apart from the rest of humanity”. Ghandi inspired and taught the earlier Dean of Marsh Chapel, Howard Thurman.

Today especially the voice of Howard Thurman, hands raised in silence, later wrote:  “there is always lurking close at had the trailing beauty of forgotten joy or unremembered peace.” 

The voice of Martin Luther King.  Thurman taught King, whose stentorian voice fills our memory and whose sculpture adorns our Plaza.  King wrote: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality”. Martin Luther King inspired a whole generation of ministers, including the current Dean of this Chapel.

He (Robert Allan Hill) wrote:  “We are all more human and more alike than we regularly affirm, all of us on this great globe. We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All seven and a half billion. We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All seven and a half  billion. We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All seven and a half billion. We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All seven and a half  billion. We all age, and after fifty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All seven and a half billion. We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All seven and a half billion.”

Spirit in Tradition.

Reason

So too, Spirit in Reason.

Reason can have the deepest range in Spirit.  Think of Robert Francis Kennedy, late a night, in the rain, at the Indianapolis airport, April 4 1968, speaking from memory and from the heart.  Looking back this week, what is striking is his reliance on spirited reason.  Reason in the rain.

Robert Francis Kennedy, Indianapolis, April 4 1968:

I have bad news for you…

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice…

In this difficult day…we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love…

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times…

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land…

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world…

Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people

And so also Thurman.  Read or re-read this winter The Search for Common Ground, With Head and Heart, and Jesus and the Disinherited.It is the spirited reason, the life of the spiritual mind of Howard Thurman that still invigorates us:

Crown: This is how Jesus demonstrated reverence for personality…He placed a crown over her head which for the rest of her life she would keep trying to grow tall enough to wear.”  (Disinherited 106).

Harmony: As Thurman wrote in the Search for Common Ground, “The Hopi Indian myth carries still, in its thematic emphasis on “the memory of a lost harmony””.  (CG, 40)

Unity: There is a unity of living structures…that includes rocks, plants, animals, and humans.  Antibodies and antigens.  And the arrangement of a cell in a human child (CG, 40).

Wisdom: Thurman cites Plato: ‘Until philosophers are kings…and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside…cities will never have rest from their evils’.  (CG, 53) 

Mind: ‘Jesus rejected hatred.  It was not because he lacked the vitality or the strength.  It was not because he lacked the incentive.  Jesus rejected hatred because he saw that hatred meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, death to communion with his Father.  He affirmed life, and hatred was the great denial’ (JATD, 88)

Child: ‘There is something more to be said about the inner equipment growing out of the great affirmation of Jesus that a man is a child of God.  (JATD, 53).

Spirit in Reason.

Experience

Spirit in Experience, and we mean here spiritual experience.  Whence ideas and imagination?

We are driving along a blue highway, Route 20.  Conversation pauses.  The rolling hillsides, now sprouting corn, alfalfa, beans, wheat, and hay, are like their own tidal waves, their own sea scape, in green not blue.

An idea arrives, related to ‘conversation’.  Two books by our MIT neighbor Sherry Turkle, Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation, have guided some of my thought about this.  We hope to meet her in person sometime.  Her voice is a crucial one in this conversation about conversation, and she is only the span of the river away.  A thought:  why not invite her, Dr. Turkle, to come to Marsh Chapel and engage in a dialogue sermon?  The conversational form of the sermon would itself accent our emphasis upon conversation, as would her voice, presence, and knowledge.  The work on conversation could include a pulpit conversation with perhaps the current intellectual leader in thought about conversation.  An idea, maybe a good idea, has arrived, as the green sea fields of young corn roll by.  But no body has done anything about it.  Yet.

Where did that idea come from?  Non liquet:  it is not clear.  Whence such an idea?  How does a new prospect—here, the possibility of a pulpit dialogue—come to life?  The leisure to drive and be bathed in silence, along with the occasional personal conversation, certainly allows space and time for such a thought to land in the mind.  The further distance from daily, office or campus routine and rhythm, so important to the work of sermon development and any other composition, adds a further support.  Perhaps the familiarity of the route, the drive itself—a road the car could meander on its own, so regular are the trips—gave a lulling quietude that became the womb of gestation for thought.  ‘My best sermon ideas come while I am shaving’ once said James Forbes.   Yet the moment of insight, of new thought, the arrival of an idea comes on its own with our without a well-manicured airport, runway or landing strip.  Whence an idea?  What is going on when we think?  Or when we think we are thinking?  Or when we think about our thinking?  Whence an idea?

Or whence imagination?  How, of a recent evening, did a current political campaign unearth the memory of 1 Samuel 16: 1-13 (here slightly updated), in the mind of a Boston preacher?

The Lord said to them:  You need another leader, and I have provided one for you.  Go to Bethlehem (or was it Iowa?) and see.

So, they went together as a party.  And along the way they held many and great debates. And they saw Eliab, also named Joe, but the Lord had not chosen him.  And then they saw Abinadab, a good Jewish fellow also known as Bernie, but they heard the Lord had not chosen him.  Then they saw Shammah, also known as Elizabeth, but their guide said the Lord had not chosen her either.  And then there seven others:  Klobachar, Steyer, Buttegieg, Booker, Harris, O’Rourke, and Bloomberg.  But these were not what they needed either. I look not on appearance but on the heart, said the Lord.  And that was the end of the list.  There were no more candidates.  And they sat down by the olive tree, or was it a New Hampshire maple tree, or was it a Georgia peach tree, and they sighed, and they murmured, and they groaned, and they sorrowed, and they gave in to melancholy.

But then someone said:  Are they all here?  Well, said someone else, I think that’s all of them.  Then one said, is that right?  Isn’t there anybody else.  And the reply came, well, I mean, there is one other, but he is really young compared to all these, and he has been busy taking care of his family and flock.  He is a good shepherd, a good governor, in that way.

And the party said, after yet another debate, Send and fetch him, for we will not sit down until he comes here, or we at least see him on TV.  And so, they went and fetched him.  Now he was ruddy.  And he had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.  And the Lord said: Arise, pick him, for this is he.  His name is David, also known as Deval.   So, they thanked Joe, Bernie, Elizabeth, Klobachar, Steyer, Buttegieg, Booker, Harris, O’Rourke and Bloomberg, and, in a big party meeting, they picked Deval.  And the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David, also known as Deval, from that day forward.

Whence such whimsical imagination?  Who knows.  We know this, though, as my son the basketball coach repeats and repeats:  It is not how you start that counts.  It is how you finish.  Life is full of surprises.

That is spirit in experience.

Spirit in Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.  All of them will take you closer to Howard Thurman, to Jesus, and to your own most self.

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My friends, the doors of the church are open!  Thurman wrote: “The ocean and the night surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by any human behavior.  The ocean at night gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the ebb and flow of circumstance.  Death would be a small thing I felt in the sweep of that natural embrace.”

‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove’

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

Sunday
January 12

Right Relationship

By Marsh Chapel

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Isaiah 42:1-9

Matthew 3:13-17

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Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Good morning! Welcome to a new year, a new decade, a time that years ago seemed so far off in the future – 2020. We’re solidly into this new year now, having finished our holiday festivities and returned to our “regular” lives of work and school (although our students still have one more week of break to enjoy). We’re back to early morning risings, rush-hour commutes, and the horizon of what this new year will have in store for us individually, in our local and national communities, and the world.

Like some of you, I was fortunate enough to spend my holiday break with my family. Christmas and New Year’s fell on Wednesdays this year, extending my time with them just a little bit longer than normal and allowing for some deep rest and relaxation. It also meant that I was treated to my mom’s cooking and baking. Baking is a big part of my family’s Christmas celebrations. My mom mixes her fruitcake batter sometime in November every year so that it can be steamed and then wrapped in sherry-soaked cheesecloth and aluminum foil, stored in the large black lobster pot in our basement until it is appropriately aged and ready to be distributed to family, friends, and neighbors at Christmastime. I know what you’re thinking – fruitcake is the ultimate Christmas-time gift punchline, but people LOVE my mom’s fruitcake. In addition to fruitcake there’s a day of baking pumpkin bread, and then, of course, baking Christmas cookies: Sugar jumbles, peanut butter Hershey’s kiss, mincemeat (my dad’s favorite), peanut butter, and the old standard, chocolate chip.

All of this baking in my youth has led to my own love of baking as an adult. But there’s something about the way my mom makes things that I still haven’t quite been able to capture. Maybe it’s because the recipes I have inherited from her aren’t actually the recipes she uses. For example, the recipe I have for pumpkin bread, which she copied from her own recipe card, is incorrect. I only found this out at Christmas this year. Number one – she doesn’t use nutmeg. Even though it’s in the recipe. Only cinnamon will do. Number two – the recipe calls for 3 cups of sugar…the recipe yields six loaves, so it’s not as sugary as you’re thinking. But my mom only uses one cup of sugar. Just one. It doesn’t say that anywhere in the recipe that I have. Granted the pumpkin bread I made still came out just fine, even with using nutmeg and the 3 cups of sugar, but it didn’t taste like I how I remembered. Those little tweaks and shifts in family recipes often yield better results, but we only find them out by either making mistakes or through direct communication from the recipe owner. There are many other recipes I could list where my mom instructs to add things like flour “until it’s enough” – actions you can only learn through practiced trial and error. The recipe is a guideline, but not the rule of how to get things just right. Sometimes, it’s through relationship with another that we really find out the “right” way to do something.

Many of us struggle with wanting to get things “right.” People seek a plan, direction, a recipe if you will for finding the best way to create the most fulfilling life, whatever that might mean for them individually. We compare ourselves to others and feel less accomplished or like we don’t know which path to take sometimes. Wouldn’t it be great to have a recipe, or a set of instructions that can help us learn what to do when aspects of our lives don’t turn out the way we expected? How can we find those necessary edits or tricks that can help us accomplish the things we need to do?

There’s a plethora of decisions and actions that may worry us today. Some of them are personal, like how to live a healthy, generous, and loving life. Many are beyond our personal control, however. We see our communities divided by ideologies and bigotry. We witness global powers threatening and, in some cases, executing attacks on other countries, leaving civilians injured or killed and provoking fear, anxiety, and hatred. Natural disasters, such as the wildfires in Australia and the compounding earthquakes in Puerto Rico, some on scales we’ve never witnessed before, destroy homes, habitats, take lives, and make recovery seem improbable. Clearly these kinds of problems have no set out guides for response – but we have ethical insights from our religious tradition that can help to guide us in times of trouble such as these. Combined with our lived experience and our relationships with others, we learn how best to live out our Christian calling in the world, sometimes making mistakes, but hopefully moving toward sharing love and establishing justice.

Prophetic language is an important part of the Judeo-Christian heritage. The prophets found in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament as many Christians refer to it, perform a variety of functions for the Israelite community. Prophets have the power to see and name what is happening presently while at the same time bringing attention to the possibilities of what could be. They operate at multiple levels within the community: as an ethical guide, a theological interpreter, a political critic, and an advocate for social welfare. The prophetic voice changes as the community and its circumstances change. When the people or leaders are not living into the will of God, prophets bring harsh warnings of potential outcomes and remind them of the important commitment they’ve established with God through their covenantal relationship. When the community is in disarray, prophets remind the people of their ethical responsibilities to one another and to God. Prophets can also challenge the status quo to bring about necessary change in the hearts and minds of leaders and the people, sometimes challenging temporal authority in order to seek true divinely-inspired justice for the community. The prophetic voice carries the nuances of behavior that go beyond the regular teachings and beliefs found in sacred texts and practices, connecting the abstract ideals of God’s will to direct actions in particular contexts. It provides the guidance similar to notes scribbled in the margins of a long established recipe.

In today’s reading from Isaiah, we are confronted with Deutero-Isaiah transmitting the words of God to the Israelites who are living in a time of exile. Although the language used initially is the singular “he”, God is speaking to the community of Israel as a whole. They, collectively, are “the servant.” The Babylonians have just captured Judah and destroyed the temple in this context, leaving the Israelites without a home and with a feeling of hopelessness. The Israelites, reasonably, could have been so anguished and angry about their exile that they would not trust in God. They could have disbanded as a community and lost trust in one another. They could have turned on other communities and harmed them in their frustration. But instead, the voice of God through the prophet reminds them of their right relationship with God and others. What is appropriate is not to take out frustration and anger on others, but to be a light to the nations of the world, a community established in justice and righteousness. A community that leads by not harming those who are oppressed, but who strives to cease such oppression from existing. Establishing a community that does not see their defeat in Judah as an end, but as the possibility of new beginning.

In today’s Gospel reading, the concept of what is “right” or appropriate comes to us in a different way. Jesus approaches John to be baptized by him. John doesn’t understand this request. To him, Jesus has more authority. Jesus should baptize him. But Jesus knows for what has to take place in his life that he must be baptized by John, for it will “fulfill all righteousness”. It is the “right” way to do this. The right execution of being in relationship with one another for Jesus is to not assert his authority by becoming the one who baptizes, but in modeling that through baptism, God calls us in to holy relationship. John’s calling in the world is to be a baptizer. It is his vocation. For Jesus to disregard John’s calling in the world, particularly as a prophet foretelling Jesus’ own arrival, would go against God’s will. In the servant-relationship that is formed by Jesus’ presence, he reverses that structure of authority. The scene of Jesus’ baptism is an indication of what his ministry will look like. He goes to the wilderness, to the literal margins of society, and is baptized because it is the right action to take.

We also know John’s baptism of Jesus is right because the Holy Spirit appears and the voice of God states that Jesus is God’s beloved, with whom God is well pleased. Matthew echoes the introduction of of Isaiah 42, connecting the mission of the beloved servant with Jesus’ ministry in the world. John and Jesus’ relationship is one that establishes the correct order of events, but the presence of God in three forms creates yet another relationship which we echo in our own baptism. We enter into a relational community – with God of course, but also with those who follow Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is claimed by God, just as we are claimed by God through our own baptism. God chooses us to be a part of the large family found through Christ. We are all siblings together sharing in the love and care exemplified by Jesus and sustained in us through the Holy Spirit. Jesus instructs us through his ministry and teaching what God’s will is to look like in the world and through following that will, we create a more just society.

In our baptism, we take on the call to fulfill all righteousness. Part of our relationship with the Divine is to act faithfully in alignment with that which God calls us to. While divine will is not always easy to discern – we don’t have doves descending or the voice of God proclaiming us to others – we have basic tenets which we know are central to our beliefs. Jesus’ ministry and death teaches us how God’s will can be lived out. Loving our neighbor and our enemy. Seeking justice for those who are voiceless, poor, oppressed, or imprisoned. Coming together to in community to worship and share our lives with one another. Practicing forgiveness against those who have wronged us. While we may know these ideas to be central to our identity as Christians, complex social/political/ethical situations can cause us to question what exactly is the right way to go about living out our faith.

Earlier this week I was seated at table with religious professionals from around the Boston area. We all work on college or university campuses and help students navigate their spiritual journeys, asking big questions, facing the realities of today with their personal histories and identities. While the meeting convened was to discuss an inter-collegiate interfaith experience, we ended up discussing the overall climate on our campuses and the best ways in which we could support our students in. The college campus is a microcosm of the outside world. It may not necessarily reflect all of the challenges of the world completely, but in some cases it amplifies conversations that only simmer slowly underneath the cultural milieu of the rest of the country or world. In a time like ours, on the precipice of an election, my colleagues and I worried if rhetoric would become more vitriolic than it has already been and how we would weather possible challenges in our communities this year. With a rise in anti-Semitic acts, bigoted violence against people of color, assertions of political leaders as demigods, and the continued exclusion of LGBTQ people from religious leadership, students have plenty of questions about how to best navigate confrontational situations, or whether to engage in them at all.

We ended up pausing our meeting to hold a 45-minute discussion about ally-ship and what that means for us as administrators, as people of faith, as religious leaders, and as those who are in positions of power in comparison to those experiencing oppression. What does it mean to bring together people who share opposing views? When is it a healthy way of learning and listening, and when is it unhealthy and abusive? When do we encourage students to have conversation even if they don’t agree, and when is it okay for them to not participate in those conversations? How do we execute this kind of work in a way that is supportive, truthful, and generous while still challenging that which is hateful and stands in opposition to our beliefs? How can we encourage our students to take part in this work, and when is it time for us to step in? We want to seek justice for our students, but we also don’t want to interfere in conversations that might not be our places to fight.

What we discovered in our discussion was that our need to be in right relationship within these situations depended upon us identifying who we are – the many identities we hold – and knowing when our voices were needed to amplify those who are facing oppression. As one of my colleagues put it, we need to be hearing in a new way those who are hurting and focusing on how our relationships matter. It is through this self-reflection that we can see the ways in which our society may privilege certain aspects about our existence that prevents us from fulling understanding the harm experienced by others. For Christians, we can rest in the assurance that we are baptized in the name of the Triune God, that God bestows grace upon us no matter how difficult the decisions we must make and the wrong turns or stumbles we may encounter. We must claim our Christian identity in the face of evil and boldly state, “I am baptized!” as Lutheran pastor and speaker Nadia Bolz-Weber reminds us in her article, “How to Say Defiantly, ‘I am Baptized!”’.

The longer I try to participate in God’s redeeming work in the world the more I am convinced despite my proclivity to cynicism that there are indeed forces that seek to defy God. And nowhere are we more prone to encroaching darkness than when we are stepping into the light. If you have ever experienced sudden discouragement in the midst of healthy decisions, or if there is a toxic thought that will always send you spiraling down, or if there is a particular temptation that is your weakness then I make the following suggestion: take a note from Martin Luther’s playbook and defiantly shout back at this darkness “I am Baptized” not I was, but I am baptized. [1]

I would add that it will also benefit us to be open to listening to those harmed and naming ways that we can be in right relationship with them while also being in right relationship with God. That is what seeking justice is all about. While God gives us the ingredients necessary to live in alignment with Divine will, sometimes we need additional instructions that come from observing our context and listening to those set at the margins of society, or listening to those with no voice at all.

Our desire to live into the righteousness and justice that God sets as a standard for those called to him is echoed throughout the history of Christianity. Figuring out our ethical responsibilities is a challenge, but we are guided by those who came before us and those who are around us now. Martin Luther, in his treatise on the Two Kinds of Righteousness reminds us what our commitment to seeking justice and righteousness means for those who follow Christ in Baptism:

“For you are powerful, not that you may make the weak weaker by oppression, but that you may make them powerful by raising them up and defending them. You are wise, not in order to laugh at the foolish and thereby make them more foolish, but that you may undertake to teach them as you yourself wish to be taught. You are righteous that you may vindicate and pardon the unrighteous, not that you may only condemn, disparage, judge and punish. For this is Christ’s example for us…”[2]

Being in right relationship with one another causes us to change how we see the world. Our willingness to hear the Gospel enables us to welcome and include those who feel excluded, to console those who are suffering, and to seek justice for those who face oppression. It opens our eyes to possibility. Our ability to listen to those who suffer and pay attention to the world around us gives us indications of the best ways to apply the Gospel in the world. We see what is, but also what can be in a deeply broken world.

Amen.

-Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “How to Say Defiantly, ‘I am Baptized!”’, Sojourners, January 20, 2011, https://sojo.net/articles/how-say-defiantly-i-am-baptized

[2] Martin Luther, “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 162.